Storm in an airline teacup shows need for a bit of restraint online

Come Monday morning, after the replacement Air New Zealand flight finally delivered him to Shanghai, the assistant professor deleted his original "China bad" tweet and apologized.
Hellorf

A recent mid-air administrative blunder highlighted a case for online restraint.

Last weekend an Air New Zealand plane en route from Auckland to Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport was forced to turn back, nearly 5 hours into a 12-hour flight, over an administrative “cockup” on the airline’s part.

One passenger on board — an assistant professor in political science — was quick to blame China, having to later backpedal and apologize.

It all began last Saturday when Air New Zealand somehow made an epic blunder: They assigned a new plane, with the registration ZK-NZQ, to their Shanghai service. The problem? That specific plane had not been registered with the Civil Aviation Administration of China, a fact the pilots realized before even attempting to contact Chinese authorities to land. That would be kind of like trying to go to China for a holiday without a holiday visa.

Understandably, once the error was spotted somewhere over Papua New Guinea, the only option was to turn back to Auckland. Thankfully the crew realized at a time when fuel levels made doing so possible — imagine the drama that would have ensued if the plane was forced to make an unauthorized emergency landing. 

New Zealand media got wind of the situation early last Sunday morning when a passenger on board, an assistant professor of political science at New York University Shanghai and self-described expert in international relations, Eric Hundman, sent out a tweet about the situation, prefaced with: “I’ve just experienced another level of China bad.”

That led to some New Zealand media initially picking up his angle and quoting his tweet verbatim, at a time when it wasn’t yet clear what led to the plane making a U-turn. Even Reuters later republished his tweet, long after the full facts had come to light.

I contacted Hundman a few hours after the plane touched down back in Auckland, when it had already become quite evident that the issue lay with the airline.

New Zealand media, particularly the New Zealand Herald, began reporting as early as midday that the airline had made an administrative faux pas, but the assistant professor seemed quite unwilling to admit he may have jumped the gun.

“I still don’t think it is clear which party is at fault here,” he told me. Based on that premise, I asked him if it was wise, as an assistant professor at a reputable university, to appear to blame one party when no clear facts had yet come to hand. He then denied blaming China, suggesting instead that his “China bad” remark meant that he had “a frustrating, highly unusual experience while en route to China.”

A large part of international relations is diplomacy, which is basically the art of keeping a cool head, being calculated in what you say and do and considering how your words and actions may be read by the other side.

Andy Boreham

No one on Twitter read it that way, and I had to wonder if someone so well versed in international relations could really make such a misstep.

A large part of international relations is diplomacy, which is basically the art of keeping a cool head, being calculated in what you say and do and considering how your words and actions may be read by the other side.

That means that thought needs to be paid to not only what your intended meaning is but also — arguably more importantly — anticipating how others may understand it. Stuart Hall referred to that as the encoding and decoding of communication.

Sure, Hundman is no diplomat, but he is representing a respected entity and has a modest following of over 5,000 on Twitter.

Come Monday morning, after the replacement Air New Zealand flight finally delivered him to Shanghai, the assistant professor deleted his original “China bad” tweet and posted an apology.

“Yesterday, after landing from a 9-hour flight to nowhere, I posted a tweet that blamed China for what I have since learned was an Air NZ screwup,” the tweet read. “My stress and exhaustion do not excuse such a post. Mea culpa, and my sincere apologies to anyone who felt attacked.”

Props to Hundman for acknowledging he put the cart before the horse. And he touched on an important point: Stress and exhaustion can sometimes lead the best of us to act irresponsibly.

Stephen Jacobi, executive director of the New Zealand China Council, agrees with that sentiment. He described the whole situation as “a storm in a teacup,” and I get the feeling he wishes I wasn’t writing this opinion piece. “I can appreciate the frustration of all on the flight,” he told me. “It’s inevitable that some will seek to vent their frustration on social media.”

But some, more than others, have a responsibility to be a bit more calculated, a bit more restrained, especially those who should know better. 

Hopefully, if anything good is to come from this Air New Zealand debacle, it will be that it serves as a valuable teaching moment for Hundman and his political science students. 

“I suppose we all need to hesitate before we push the twitter button!” Jacobi added. I wholeheartedly agree.

IC

Air New Zealand is one of the world’s top airlines, but this time they cocked up.

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