BEIJING — Attacks with scalding water, a bomb threat and a half-hearted suicide attempt — all in one plane ride. Mark this down as one of the most bizarre stories in a long time of bad behavior on a flight.
Passengers who were aboard a Thai AirAsia flight from Bangkok to the Chinese city of Nanjing told China’s Shenzhen Satellite TV that the drama started with a dispute over the beverage service, and quickly spiraled out of control.
According to passengers who spoke with the TV station, a female passenger threw scalding water on a flight attendant. Cell phone footage posted online then shows a man who other passengers identified as her boyfriend threatening to blow up the plane. When the woman was eventually asked to apologize, she began threatening suicide while pounding on the airplane windows, according to the TV report.
The chain of events worried the pilots enough that they turned around and flew back to Bangkok’s airport, where multiple reports said the troublemakers were promptly arrested.
The incident occurred on Thursday, but with cell phone videos and eyewitness accounts continuing to pour out, Chinese state media reported Chinese authorities issued a statement on Saturday night saying the passengers have been put on a travel blacklist in their home province after they “severely tarnished the image of the Chinese people.”
Eyewitnesses interviewed by Shenzhen Satellite TV described a bizarre sequence of events in which petty complaints quickly escalated into threats of mass murder. The couple first lashed out over seating assignments, but things truly heated up over a cup of boiling water, witnesses told the station.
After ordering a cup of hot water for her instant noodles, the woman was told hot water costs money and that it couldn’t be served during takeoff, according to the television interviews. After the water for the noodles was delivered, disputes over currency and receipts rapidly escalated. When a flight attendant turned around, the woman threw the hot water on her back, passengers told Shenzhen Satellite TV.
When flight attendants demanded an apology from the man, he took things to the next level, according to cell phone footage posted online that purportedly shows the altercation.
“So I can’t even spend my money?” the unidentified man can be seen shouting in one cell phone video included in the TV station’s report. “If there are problems then they were caused by you! … I’m going to blow up the plane!”
An eyewitness surnamed Wu told Shenzhen Satellite TV that both the man and the airline staff demanded apologies from one another, but both sides refused. Wu said that when it became clear the plane was turning around, the man tried to de-escalate the situation, but his girlfriend was not prepared to cooperate.
“He told his girlfriend [to apologize], but she just got even crazier,” said Wu. “She tried to directly climb over her seat to the row behind her, saying ‘If you apologize to them I’m going to kill myself in front of you.’ She started banging on the window and the door. At that point we were all terrified.”
China’s state Xinhua News Agency said that when the plane landed back at Don Meung Airport in Bangkok, the couple and two other passengers were placed under arrest. They paid 50,000 Thai baht (about $1,500) in compensation to the flight attendant (who was treated for possible injures, Shenzhen Satellite TV reported), as well as fines equivalent to $3 and $6 for “disturbing public order.”
Xinhua also reported that AirAsia has said it will not pursue further legal action.
Chinese officials have expressed their intent to deter disruptive behavior by Chinese air travelers, after national airports have been the scenes of numerous public disturbances and even brawls in recent years, with some passengers pursuing vigilante justice over perceived mistreatment by airline employees.
Brouhahas involving Chinese tourists — including one instance in which a Chinese teenager reportedly carved his name into an Egyptian monument — have also received international attention, with both the Chinese public and the country’s government expressing shame over each incident.
There are plenty of well-documented instances of bad behavior from airline passengers of all nationalities, but the issue strikes at the heart of public insecurity in China over the nation’s place in the world: Despite ballooning income levels, many Chinese feel they and their country don’t get respect abroad.
Attempted remedies have included a controversial commercial on state television: Panda-suited actors were shown sleeping on park benches, urinating in public and forcing locals to take pictures with them. The ad, which saw the urinating scene cut before it was fully pulled from TV, concluding by imploring: “Don’t forget the whole world is watching us. Everybody be a good panda.”