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Taiwanese Protest Against Airline Mistreatment

March 17, 1994

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) _ When the Delta Airlines flight from Oregon finally reached Taipei, having been delayed for nearly three hours during a stopover in South Korea, 84 Taiwanese passengers rebelled.

Refusing pleas to disembark, they stayed aboard for four hours until they were promised compensation for the delay and lack of food during the stopover in Seoul.

It was one of a series of incidents in which Taiwanese travelers have refused to take delays and poor treatment lying down. The problem has become serious enough for airline representatives to warn they will no longer tolerate passenger rebellions.

″Taiwanese passengers, as individuals, observe the etiquette. But when they gather as a group, they do what they think is right,″ says Joseph Sheu, a manager of Cathay Pacific Airlines.

″Their nationalist sentiment rises. They say, ’You’re bullying the Taiwanese. If we were Americans, you wouldn’t do this,‴ Sheu said in an interview.

Taiwan was shunned for more than 40 years by governments fearful of affronting the rival Communist Chinese regime in Beijing, who had sent the Nationalists scurrying to the island after ousting them in 1949.

But now they’re rich enough to have afforded 4.6 million trips abroad in 1993, spending $7.5 billion - and they want to be treated right.

″Given Taiwan’s uncertain political status, Taiwanese may be more sensitive,″ speculated Huang Rong-tsun, a psychology professor at National Taiwan University.

In some cases, passengers refusing to disembark have produced mobile phones and summoned reporters and politicians to the airport to hear their protests.

One celebrated case, although not involving an airline, illustrates their tenacity.

Last August, Taiwanese tourists returning from Austria called a news conference to accuse Vienna police of strip-searching some of them because a credit card was wrongly suspected to be counterfeit.

The uproar went all the way to the government, with Foreign Minister Fredrick Chien threatening a tourist boycott of Austria. The Austrian government apologized.

Also in August, about 300 Taiwanese had to camp overnight at Hong Kong airport because their Thai Airways flight had mechanical problems and the airline said it was too late to find them a hotel.

When the plane reached Taipei next day, they at first refused to disembark. Then they occupied the airport lounge, waving protest banners until the airline agreed to compensate them.

A month later a similar incident happened to 80 Taiwanese flying Garuda Airlines of Indonesia. Garuda paid each protester $200 and published apologies in newspaper ads.

In December it was Delta’s turn. It insisted it wasn’t the airline’s fault that the passengers got nothing to eat, saying the Seoul airport restaurant was closed and it would have taken hours to bring in food from the city.

It finally agreed to compensation of $200, but later backed out, saying that the promise was extracted under duress and that international regulations did not require airlines to compensate for plane delays.

The Taiwan Consumers Foundation said it would sue Delta for breach of promise. ″The passengers did not cause any damage to the aircraft. It was absolutely legal for them to stay on the plane until they are compensated for the delay,″ foundation attorney Yin Chang-hua told airline representatives at a recent meeting.

On Wednesday, representatives of 50 airlines called a news conference to announce that enough was enough, there would be no more compensation, and rebellious passengers were lawbreakers subject to as much as three years in jail under Taiwanese law.

Update hourly