Flying too high

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Naive passengers, dodgy air traffic controllers, and other troublemakers continue to make flying in Vietnam an interesting experience

Vietnam Airlines planes at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City. The national carrier has been struggling with naive passengers, dodgy air traffic controllers and other troublemakers.

Vietnam Airlines flights have been plagued by an extraordinary amount of passengers opening emergency exits, a slew of bomb jokes and hoaxes, the harassment of crew members, and incompetent air traffic controllers who have come close to causing deadly accidents.

All the industry can think to do is raise the fines for breaching air travel regulations.

Passengers that make fake bomb threats or jokes on the ground are fined VND10-20 million (US$479-958), while those who do so in the air are fined VND30 million ($1,437). More serious bomb jokes may attract a one-year flight ban.

But Vietnam Airlines says the penalties are too small.

Cao Hong Son, a disabled athlete, was fined VND20 million last December after he made a bomb joke during check-in at Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Son Nhat International Airport.

Son reportedly said he would throw a bomb to clear the crowd while standing in a long line waiting for his turn to check in.

Last May, 27-year-old French passenger Mariano François Xavier Jean Agostini was fined VND15 million for making a bomb threat when a plane was boarding at the same airport.

While passengers were boarding a flight to the central city of Da Nang, Agostini told a Vietnamese female passenger in his group that he had bomb in his hand luggage.

Another French passenger overheard their conversation and reported it to crew members.

Agostini was then not allowed to board as punishment and later told airport authorities he was just joking about the bomb.

Vietnam Airlines said the penalty was too light.

Horseplay at 3,000ft

The act of harassing, beating or threatening crew members attracts fines of VND3-5 million ($143-239).

On January 20, 31-year-old Nguyen Ngoc Duc, who was flying from Germany to Vietnam, was fined $240 for drunkenly harassing and attacking Vietnam Airlines flight attendants.

Officials from the national carrier said that around four hours after the plane took off, Duc started to tease an attendant who was serving him.

After the male deputy head of the attendants' team asked him to stop, Duc turned to attack the man and nearby passengers, forcing the team to tie him up.

Duc was found to be under the influence of alcohol at the time.

The man later offered the excuse that he was on special medication that had caused the alcohol to act faster. The man is a German citizen of Vietnamese origin, and does not speak Vietnamese fluently.

Around a month earlier, 46-year-old Vietnamese police officer Quach Thang also had to pay a cash fine after he harassed a stewardess on a Vietnam Airlines flight.

No exit

The act of attempting to open emergency exits attracts fines VND15-20 million ($718-958), but opening those forbidden doors seems to be all the rage lately.

In the latest case, Vietnam Airlines claimed it incurred losses of around $10,000 when a passenger opened an emergency exit after its aircraft landed at Tan Son Nhat International Airport on February 14.

The evacuation slide was released when 29-year-old Le Van Thuan, who was arriving from the north-central town of Vinh, opened the door, and the vessel could not be used for its next scheduled flight.

Thuan admitted he had been reminded of the plane's safety rules by the flight crew, but still opened the door hoping it would help a woman seated near him exit the airplane quickly because her baby was crying.

According to Vietnam Airlines, Thuan opened the door immediately after the crew announced the aircraft had landed safely.

He was then fined VND15 million for the act.

Late last year, a Taiwanese senior and a Vietnamese university student were also caught attempting to open emergency exits and fined VND15 million each.

Chuang Wen, 81, told Vietnamese authorities that he mistook the exit for the restroom door on a flight from Kaohsiung City, Taiwan, to HCMC on November 19, 2011.

The accident happened one hour after the plane took off.

The man was then stopped by another passenger before being asked to return to his seat. He was put under close crew observation until the plane arrived in HCMC.

On November 12, 2011, Nguyen Duc Duy, a 22-year-old student, was also fined the same amount for trying to open an emergency exit on a Vietnam Airlines flight from HCMC to Hanoi shortly before takeoff.

Duy was reportedly seated next to an emergency exit and pressed the open button, which he said he thought was the button to open the window.

Duy told airline authorities he had never flown on an airplane before and did not know anything about emergency exits.

According to a local aviation expert, it is impossible to open an emergency exit during a flight, but it is quite easy to open while the plane is on the ground if the passenger is strong enough to press the open button and push the lever.

Phan Xuan Duc, Vietnam Airlines' deputy general director, told Vietweek the fines for airline violations should be raised because the airline suffers losses of several hundreds of millions of dong each time an emergency exit door is opened.

"On the other hand, it is the transport ministry, not the air carriers, that has the authority to impose the fines, so the carriers have no other way but to suffer the losses," he said.

Pham Quy Tieu, chief of the Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam, agreed by saying that the Aviation Law should be amended, with all fines increased.

"A passenger who tries to open the emergency exit will delay the flight for hours, affecting hundreds of passengers and the air carriers' flying schedules," he said.

Experts also argue that these recent violations demonstrate that airline passengers do not know enough about flight safety rules, and that flight crew are not doing a good job of educating them.

Air traffic out-of-control

More troubling are the problems that have recently plagued the air traffic control tower at Tan Son Nhat Airport, where employee negligence and/or incompetence have recently been blamed for two near-fatal accidents and other mishaps.

Do Hoang Diep, director of the Southern Air Traffic Management Company, told one such story to online newspaper VnExpress Tuesday (February 28).

He said that on January 17, two air traffic controllers, whose names he did not disclose, got into a fist fight while they were working.

The fight, caused by personal conflicts, interrupted their work for a few minutes. Luckily, it did not cause any danger to air traffic, according to Diep.

The two air traffic controllers were then transferred to another department for three months and their salaries have been decreased as punishment.

Air traffic controllers were also been blamed for an incident in which a Vietnam Airlines passenger airplane nearly collided with one from Jetstar Pacific near Tan Son Nhat Airport in HCMC on December 19, 2011.

On October 1, 2011, four air traffic controllers at the airport wrongly ordered an aircraft arriving from Taiwan to land on the wrong runway, on which workers and a truck were removing rubber from the tarmac.

Fortunately, another controller recognized the error and warned his colleagues in time.

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