I am a Malaysian currently residing and working in Dubai. On Dec 25, 2008, I flew with Malaysian Airlines flight MH161 to Kuala Lumpur to visit my parents. I was in seat 36H (an aisle seat) and the seat next to me, 36K (window seat) was vacant. The flight stopped over at Karachi for an hour.
In Karachi, more passengers boarded the plane. One male passenger boarded, showed his boarding pass to a stewardess and she pointed to seat beside me (36K). The man looked at me and said, ‘She's a Hindu, I cannot sit beside her.’ The stewardess responded, ‘So what? What's wrong with Hindu?’ The man then began to yell and shout that he would not sit next to a Hindu.
The crew insisted that he had to because there were no other seats available because the plane was full. Then this passenger sat down but began to verbally abuse my faith and the crew members. I sat in my seat but was physically cringing away from him. The flight supervisor was summoned and until then the man was still seated next to me. Imagine my shock, horror and fear in being next to a hostile, abusive person.
One steward did stand next to me but did not offer any help and I did not feel safe or reassured. I reached out and told that steward that I did not feel safe anymore. I said this to him softly in English and he told me to sit and wait. He then walked off and a female crew member took his place. All this time I was under the impression that this hostile passenger beside me was a Pakistani.
I then told the stewardess in Malay that this man should not be seated beside me after what he had said about me. There were other Malaysian passengers sitting in the same area and all of them heard me. She smiled and merely nodded.
Finally, the flight supervisor, ‘SB’, approached the passenger and after an angry exchange, the passenger said, ‘Move her then!’ and SB replied, ‘Yes, we will move her’. More angry words were exchanged and it was revealed that the passenger was actually a Malaysian. When this news was revealed, the passenger actually stood up with his fists up, ready to be physically violent. I was then hauled out of my seat and taken to the back of the plane. I was kept in the kitchen.
By this time I had gone into shock and was crying uncontrollably. I was shaking with rage because I was in a position where there was nothing I could do to defend myself. No one else seemed to be doing anything too.
I could not see what was happening from the rear of the plane but I did see uniformed security personnel approaching my original seat. I could not hear or make out what was happening as there was a group of people standing around my original seat. Eventually, the group left and it was announced that the plane would be taking off.
All this time I was in the kitchen, shaking and crying. All that was done for me was crew members taking turns to ask me if I was okay and offering me Coke and water! The plane began to taxi and I was then taken to another seat (42H). As I sat down, I asked the steward, ‘Is he off the plane?’ and the answer was, ‘No.’ I was appalled.
After the plane took off, the flight supervisor, SB, came and sat beside me. He explained to me that they could not put him off the plane because he was a deportee and if they had insisted on putting him off, then the plane would not have been cleared for take off. I was still crying at this point. I asked, ‘Why am I in a different seat? He should be!’ but my question was not answered.
The plane was not full. There were eight seats vacant in the rear, four on the right aisle and four seats on the left. Seat 42H, where I was put, was one of those vacant seats in the rear. If the MAS crew knew there was a deportee boarding, should they not have made arrangements to place him at the rear of the plane? What kind of airline policy allows a deportee to sit beside a female passenger travelling alone?
I spent the next five and a half hours on the flight in tears. I was not able to sleep because I knew that a hostile passenger was only six rows down from me. I was not afraid but in rage. My friends who are reading this would know the kind of person I am. I have always stood up for my rights and for the rights of people whom I love. I would not usually tolerate such abuse and I would not have hesitated in defending myself.
What stopped me was knowing that I was on a plane, in a confined space and that there were other passengers around me too, women and children. The abusive passenger was not removed from the plane and when we landed at KLIA, he disembarked like a normal passenger and was not escorted or arrested. I also disembarked knowing that I was now in the same terminal, on my own, as this hostile passenger.
I am very disappointed with the way MAS dealt with the incident. That passenger should have been taken to the rear of the plane and restrained. I was the victim of the incident yet I lost my chosen seat that I had paid for. Apart from offers of water, Coke and some verbal reassurances, the crew did not do anything else for me.
I have contacted other major airlines and this is how they would have dealt with the matter: I would have been moved to Business/First Class and I would have been escorted into the terminal until I safely exited the airport. MAS did not do anything for me. First of all, they jeopardised my safety and well-being by forcing the passenger to sit beside me knowing that he was hostile towards me and then they did nothing else to keep me safe.
I was in the same cabin as that passenger, wondering if he was going to walk by or pass me. I spent the entire five and a half hours in tears because I could not stand up for my rights and also because I had to keep my own rage pent-up.
Once I landed, I rang my husband in Dubai and related the events to him. He took immediate steps to contact MAS but to no avail. I stayed for one week in Malaysia and every single day, I tried to call their Customer Complaints Department. All I got was a voice mail. I left numerous messages but no one called me back. No one contacted my husband in Dubai. It is only after he put it up on the MAS blog that we have received some kind of response. Fourteen days after the incident, someone from MAS called me to offer an apology.
My husband also received an email from someone who has offered me 25 percent discount on a return flight from KL to Dubai and actually referred to that abusive passenger as a ‘fellow customer’! She also clearly stated that measures taken were to prevent that passenger from getting angrier. So in other words, they do admit that.
These are the questions I posed to MAS:
Why force a passenger who is racially abusive and hostile to my appearance and faith to sit beside me? There were other seats available at the rear as I discovered later.This was not a passenger who was merely fussing about his seat, this was a passenger who was potentially a threat to another passenger.
Why did the flight supervisor immediately give in to his demands and agree to move me? I was not the passenger causing trouble.
Upon retrospect, I think I was lied to. I do not think the passenger was a deportee. It was a lie told to me to keep him on the plane and keep me quiet. If a lie was told, that means that the crew took measures to protect the hostile passenger and themselves but not me, the victim. If so, then the MAS crew perpetuated the racism and discrimination initiated by the passenger.
If this is the case, then the entire crew participated in jeopardising my safety and appropriate action should be taken against them. If the passenger was truly a deportee or an INA (inadmissible because of visa) then the plane captain should have documents about him. If a deportee or INA caused trouble on a flight, the captain should have been informed immediately.
Why was the captain not informed and if he was, why did he not come to see me? I have been informed that KLIA security had been called but there was no one waiting when the plane landed. The abusive passenger disembarked like any other normal passenger. Why was he not nabbed or restrained? Why did not the crew ensure my safety in the terminal too?
I am demanding a formal, written apology from Malaysian Airlines. I want a truthful, reasonable explanation for all the five points I have listed above. I want some compensation for what I suffered. So far, I have only received an e-mail informing that the matter is under investigation.