Expect delays

Air traffic congestion is a growing headache for Chinese aviation

Expect delays

In time marching. Pity about the flights...

Blame the Martians, not us. At least it’s a novel excuse. And travel-weary passengers on Chinese airlines have been hearing a few of those recently.

It follows news from Hangzhou in July that 18 flights were disrupted at the city’s airport, after authorities spotted a “twinkling object” in the night sky. “No conclusion has yet been drawn,” the local head of air traffic control informed Xinhua.

Flying saucer or not, little would surprise an increasingly sceptical travelling public. They’re being told that they are better off than most in airline punctuality terms. According to the most recent data released by the CAAC, China’s civil aviation authority, 77% of the country’s flights are taking off on time. That’s down on recent years, when 80% was the threshold. But it’s still in the “upper range” of international comparisons, insist CAAC spokespeople.

Really? The anecdotal evidence, the Chinese press suggests, is that performance is nowhere near as good. New Century Weekly reckons that closer to 30% of domestic flights are departing on time at some airports, according to delay data collected by private groups. The leading hubs – Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou – are suffering the most.

One problem with the official data, New Century believes, is the definitions being used by the CAAC and most of its airline customers. They are saying that a flight has departed as soon as its plane doors are closed, even if the captain then has to sit on the runway waiting for an hour to take off. But who’s to blame when delays do occur? Unpredictable weather accounts for about 20% of lateness, according to the CAAC.

Authorities also point to rapid growth in passenger numbers, with the number of air routes for commercial travel remaining basically the same. Zou Jianjun, a professor at the Civil Aviation Management Institute, demurs. “It isn’t that there aren’t enough roads, it’s just that all the roads are not open for general use,“ he told the Global Times last month.

The implication: the military bears most responsibility for China’s air congestion, especially its refusal to release much more than a fifth of airspace for civil use. Instead, People’s Liberation Army commanders shunt commercial aircraft into narrow corridors of airspace, resulting in delays for approval to proceed. Think of it like tollgates, Zou concludes: “There are 10 lanes on the road but seven gates are closed”.

The airlines themselves feel hard done by as they still have to meet the costs of schedule disruption. Rather gallingly, carriers which consistently fail to depart on time also receive warning bulletins from the CAAC. Further failures can lead to flight slots being withdrawn, says the Economic Observer.

Not that they are completely blameless: New Century Weekly says some airlines are opting to close their passenger doors well ahead of schedule so that they can claim punctual departure and avoid fines.

So perhaps it’s no wonder that reports of raging passengers have been increasing too.

In July, an embittered group of Hainan Airlines customers already delayed by seven hours were only persuaded to board their aircraft when a senior manager kneeled down and begged them, the China Daily reports.

Two passengers incensed by their own delays in Chengdu pushed airline staff out of a second-floor window, causing serious injuries.

On a day-to-day basis, the real upshot is that businesspeople are finding it ever harder to get seats, particularly on the busy Beijing to Shanghai route. Good news for the high-speed train that will open between the cities in 2012.

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