Air China faces heat for allegedly sneaking Red Cross official past closed boarding gate

Airline denies it let elite-card-toting executive on flight while refusing to let another late passenger board

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 April, 2014, 5:39pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 January, 2015, 4:40pm

An Air China official batted down accusations that the airline broke Chinese aviation regulations by allowing a Red Cross official to board a plane even after the gates closed – despite turning away another late passenger moments before.

The rebuffed passenger claimed the charity official was allowed on the airplane because she was a Phoenix Miles elite member. Based on a photo and information from ground crew, the complainant identified the executive as Zhao Baige, vice-president of the state-backed Red Cross Society of China.

A spokesperson from Air China told the South China Morning Post today that the privileges for life-long Phoenix Miles Platinum card holders like Zhao did not include the right to board planes after gates are shut.

The cardholder has to fly one million Air China miles to qualify for that membership, the spokesperson said.

“This is something Air China would not do,” said Fan Cheng, vice-president and executive director of the flag carrier, according to news portal Hexun.com.

When reporters asked him to elaborate, Fan said, “[The accusation] could be a misunderstanding … Planes only report to ground controllers after the gate is closed.”

The airline came under fire on mainland social media when the passenger who was turned away posted a complaint on messaging app WeChat, which was later reposted on popular microblog Weibo this week.

The anonymous poster said he or she missed final call by two minutes on Monday morning and could not get on the Nanchang-Beijing flight.

But when Zhao arrived at the gate five minutes later, she was allowed to board the aircraft, according to the complaint.

When the rebuffed passenger confronted ground staff, they explained Zhao was an elite member of the Phoenix Miles club.

The Red Cross could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

Air China’s response failed to pacify mainland microbloggers, who continued to blast the carrier for “not telling the truth” and bending the rules.

“Why is the Red Cross [officer] still not sacked?” many bloggers wrote.

“This reveals the sad reality that the Chinese still live in a society of privilege [for a few],” lawyer Ding Jinkun wrote on Weibo. “Contracts between passengers and the carrier are therefore trumped by the special identity of officials.”

The Chinese Red Cross faced a number of scandals in recent years over its finances. Its reputation took a serious hit when one of its affiliate managers, Guo Meimei, caused a public backlash when she flaunted her lifestyle by posting pictures of herself with her Hermes bags and collection of expensive cars online.

Last year, the charity stirred controversy when it redirected some 80 million yuan (HK$100 million) donated by Chinese artists to other projects without the donors’ permission. The money was meant for an art school and reconstruction work after the 2008 Sichuan projects, but the Red Cross used it instead for a programme to “foster community development”.