By Sun Liping
Published: 2008-04-22

From Observer, page 43, issue no. 363, April 14, 2008
Translated by Ren Yujie
Original articles

The author of this commentary piece is a social sciences lecturer with Tsinghua University.

Though the high-profile China Eastern Airlines (CEA) "flights disruption"case in Yunnan took place on March 31, the "truth" only emerged slowly over time.

The disruption was undoubtedly an intentional one. At first, the CEA firmly denied it was due to a strike by the pilots. Instead, it gave the excuse that 18 flights turned back midway without landing at designated areas because of "poor weather conditions".

The explanation immediately raised doubts among passengers and industry experts. Why were all other flights able to land that day except those of CEA? To counter the doubts, the CEA gave another excuse that it had a stricter standards than others in guarding flight security, and the weather that day was not up to mark.

An investigation by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) identified "human elements" in the disruptions, citing that pilots from the CEA's Yunan branch were involved*. In other words, the disruption was in fact a strike.

(*The article was written before the CAAC ruling came on April 17, when CEA was fined 1.5 million yuan, had some of its routes taken over by rival airlines, and told to take action against those responsible and uphold safety.)

The strike resulted from clash of interests between pilots and the carrier. Media reports have suggested that pilots and cabin crews were unhappy with declined incomes after Yunnan Airlines merged with CEA (back in 2002). There also was a salary gap between state-owned and private airlines. Internet rumors said that the pilots were taxed up to 30% of their earnings, unlike other airlines staff who could evade taxes through legal channels and submitted only about 5% of their salaries.

Ultimately, the strike harmed the interests of all parties involved.

For the pilots, the heaviest price they paid is losing the public's confidence and having their professional ethics questioned. In some countries, such action would have ended these pilots' careers. They have been criticized by the public for crossing the line in their dispute with the carrier.

In disputes between workers and employers, the public usually showers sympathy on the weaker party -- workers. This time around, however, public sentiment is reversed.

I believe the key question is not about the "fight", but the way the "fight" was conducted. When 18 flights turned back midway, the lives and safety of thousands of people were in question; the action was akin to hijacking a flight or kidnapping the passengers. In other words, the pilots had used public interest as a bargaining chip.

CEA too has suffered greatly. Apparently, many travelers have avoided flying with CEA after the incident. Some net users have been posting comments at online flights booking forums calling for a boycott of the CEA. The airlines' spokesperson has admitted that the fall-out is as serious as having an air crash.

In fact, the real issue in question here is the airlines' integrity. The China Consumers' Association has pointed out that CEA's initial denial was proven wrong by the CAAC's investigation; and that the carrier deliberately tried to mislead consumers, thus should be prosecuted under related laws on consumers' rights protection. For finding unreasonable excuses to downplay a negative incident, the carrier has paid with its image, and its dented integrity will take a long time to recover.

Another interesting point about the incident was that the whole event was shrouded in mystery. Even up till now, details are scant. Those involved have been planning the strike secretly, like an underground movement. Almost all media reports on the event have touched on a mysterious letter entitled "A Letter to the CEA Pilots of Yunnan Branch", circulating among pilots' in the two days prior the event.

The letter has listed four contentious issues. First, the pilots' incomes are lower than their counterparts in the industry; second, certain inspection procedures imposed on pilots are humiliating for the profession; third, their salaries and allowance packages areunmatched with the taxation standards; and forth, the injustice against Zheng Zhihong, a former CEA pilot who crossed over to another airlines and had to pay the former a huge sum of compensation (1.37 million yuan).

The letter ended by saying: "We hope everyone will speak up freely and make concerted efforts for a healthier and happier working environment, for flying safety, for the smooth and harmonious growth of the company." Those pilots who later participated in the "flights disruption" incident have all mentioned the letter. However, the author of the letter remains unknown.

In addition, the actual organization of the "strike" involving 18 flights and 40 cabin crew remains unknown. All those questioned have denied there was a leader.

Let's compare the incident with strikes in other places. A reporter who has covered the strike of Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways once wrote: "pilots were organized by their union, which meticulously mapped out a strategy."

The airlines cabin crew targeted the peak flying season when all airlines were tight with manpower. The pilots either applied for sick leave en mass, or deployed what was called "wild cat" tactic, meaning the pilots would apply for sick leave after landing in overseas destinations, which resulted in the airlines inability to mobilize replacement for flights back to Hong Kong.

In addition, the union would tap the power of media and public opinion. Details of the negotiation process would be leaked to the media, generating public attention to exert pressure on the airlines.

Another strike that nearly happened with British Airways earlier this year had highlighted the use of law. Its union was unhappy with the carrier's decision to hire pilots at inferior pay, and during a union meeting, the pilots voted for carrying out a strike. However, the airlines had avoided the incident by seeking a court injunction.

The above cases were all related to conflict of interests and the fights for interests, however, the ways of fighting differed, so were the impacts. In other places, a strike is carried out openly and abides by certain rules of the game; whereas the CEA case has been brewing in the dark. The earlier is predictable and responses to avert crisis can be drafted in time, unlike the latter.

The differences arise not because of the fighters' differed mentalities, but more due to a different legal environment. In places where the laws have clearly stipulated the rights and boundaries for a strike, the fight is conducted openly for public scrutiny – including the interest parties, consumers and the government.

In China, carrying out a strike is considered illegal. When the weaker party, namely the workers, wish to exert pressure on their employer, they could only go underground. Thus the fight is carried out secretly without a regulatory framework, and where the wild card is potentially more harmful to the larger society and economy.

Not only are we lacking a regulatory mechanism to mediate such conflicts, we are further pushing the "fight" to go underground with talks of severe punishment for the culprits. In the CEA case, there was not a single body representing the cabin crew for negotiation, rather the carrier and investigators have to individually talk to all those involved.

The CEA case has underscored a deficiency in our legal framework.