First They Came for the Chinese Tourists, Then They Came for the Yeshiva Students ...

Air travel as indicator of fray points in society

Last week I mentioned the accusations in the state-run Chinese press that Chinese travelers to America were getting brusque treatment from United Airlines, allegedly because they were Chinese. Two days ago some 100 high school seniors from Yeshivah of Flatbush, in Brooklyn, were made to leave an AirTran flight, allegedly (according to a Time story) because of bias against a "visibly Jewish" group. According to the AirTran flight crew, it was because the kids wouldn't sit down and turn off their cell phones when told to do so. You can see a picture of some of the kids at the NY Daily News site. Of course there is a long skein of similar rumblings from the modern world of the skies: flying while black; flying while brown; flying while half-Arab and half-Jewish; flying your own plane while Hasidic; flying your own plane from California; and so on.

Now, three putting-it-in perspective responses. First, a defense of the specific United Airlines staffer singled out for criticism in the Chinese press. I didn't use this person's name in my earlier item, even though it was all over the original piece in the People's Daily, and I've also removed it from the reader's note below. You can find it on your own, but I figure there is no point in feeding a name unnecessarily into the world's search-engine bots. (I have tried to contact this staffer, so far with no results.) But, with permission, I'm using the real name of the reader, Joseph Gualtieri of Hong Kong. He writes:

I just saw your post about the United Airlines-related article in the People Daily. It so happens that I have encountered XX [the UAL agent] before, and I feel I should jump in to complement the image portrayed in that article.

Back in March I flew from Hong Kong (where I live) to New York (where I'm from) upon the birth of my first niece. The flight path was a bit weird: direct from HKG to EWR and then LGA-ORD-HKG. Anyway, my flight back from LGA to ORD was an early one and, long story short, I got mixed up and ended up back at EWR and not at LGA. I'm an anxious guy even when the going is good and when I realized my error I was literally shaking with dread at the prospect of missing my connection in Chicago (there there was only an hour to transfer), having to buy a new ticket back to HK, missing work engagements, all that.

Well, it was my good fortunate to encounter XX. Beginning with "I'm totally screwed, because..." I told her my situation. She gave me possibly the sweetest smile I've ever seen, told me not to worry, and stepped away to make a phone call. Thirty seconds, maybe a minute later she had me on a direct flight from EWR and HKG (UA 116).  I remember her name, and always will remember her name, as a consequence of the great kindness she showed me. In fact, I feel like that was the best customer service experience of my life: through sheer idiocy, I messed everything up and United responded by giving me what was, in effect, a superior product (i.e. a more expensive seat on a direct flight).

I also want to point out that I'm by no means an elite flyer; I was flying economy (regular, not even premium economy) and I hadn't yet reached silver status on Mileage Plus, not exactly the kind of guy an airline "should" go out of its way to accommodate. Obviously I have no idea what the true story behind the People's Daily article is, but I can tell you that XX is hands down the kindest, most helpful airline employee that I have ever met (or, frankly, than I can imagine)....

Thanks for reading and do consider at least alluding to this experience if you should revisit this subject. Given that she was mentioned by name in the People's Daily, I just think, in this era of false equivalence, it's important to point out that she was, at least this one time, insanely understanding.

Noted, with thanks. On the other hand, from an expat I know who has lived for a long time in Asia, this contrary report:

I have American friends here [in China] who now refuse to fly United because they have witnessed so many instances of flight attendant rudeness to Chinese passengers.  I still take UA, for its convenient routes, but I share their view that far too many United flight attendants;
  a. radiate contempt for passengers who don't speak English
  b. take a very harsh, downright nasty, approach to any incident involving Chinese passengers who aren't sure what is expected of them, or aren't doing what is expected of them by UA's policies.
Of course there are exceptions, many.  But this seems to be the rule.  UA flight attendants are not known for their patience and charm under the best of circumstances, with any passengers, but a plane that is 2/3 full of Chinese passengers seems to bring out the absolute worst in them....

[Is it anti-Chinese "bias"?]  I think it's normal rudeness made worse by their refusal to acknowledge that the passengers in question do not understand English and therefore are dependent on the airline to make extra efforts to communicate.  It's not their fault that they don't speak English.  United wants these people's business.  Facial expressions and tones of voice that express annoyance and contempt are way, way out of line. 

The Continental crews, who insist on referrring to themselves as Continental crews when I speak with them on the Beijing/Newark flights, are better.

This rings true to my overall experience, on the dozens of mostly-United flights I have taken between North America and Beijing or Shanghai. (Including the ongoing self-identification of the "Ex-Cons," the former Continental crews.) The passenger load seems to be increasingly Chinese -- which is good! Some of these Chinese passengers seem to be taking their first-ever airplane trip, and most of them are from a domestic-Chinese airline culture that just works differently from America's. Domestic Chinese passengers may be accustomed to people walking around when the airplane is taxiing, having the cabin crew give ineffectual suggestions rather than orders, etc. When I can find it, I'll insert a picture of a domestic flight in China in which passengers were lined up in the aisle, bags in hand, as the plane touched down. Not many of these travelers are comfortable in English. Thus the scenario the reader describes.

But, again, is it "bias"? For our final word I turn to a rabbi from the Midwest, who says of the Yeshivah of Flatbush / AirTran episode:

While I wasn't a witness to what happened onboard, I question the veracity of the claims made by the adult chaperones of the yeshiva students who were forced off the plane because of Anti-Semitism. I'm wondering if it's just another example of flight attendants who have a zero tolerance because of how they feel about their unhappy professional lives  - as you've opined about in the past - or of inappropriate passenger behavior that was simply intolerable for other passengers and crew.

This rabbi adds that "I travel frequently and am easily identifiable as someone who is Jewish (i.e. I wear a kippah (yarmulke)). I have never experienced anti-Semitism at the hands of a flight attendant or pilot." I think he's right, in the sentence from his message that I've put in bold. Air travel is becoming a leading-edge indicator of many of the fray-points in modern life, from the unhappy outlook of many who work in the industry, to the increasing incursions of security-state thinking into travel aboard aircraft large or small.

And in case you're wondering about the headline...