The long wait

China’s passengers suffer 232-year flight delay

China Airlines planes are seen on the tarmac of Beijing Capital International Airport

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For those who regularly fly in China it will come as no surprise that it has been named once again as the country in which passengers are most likely to suffer delays.

Passengers in China have just a 46% chance of taking off on time and face average delays of an hour when travelling on a local carrier. That’s according to the latest data from the air-travel monitoring service Flightstats.

Chinese airports accounted for the world’s 16 least punctual places to fly from, with only one non-Chinese candidate, Krasnodar in Russia, anything like as dismal.

Meanwhile China’s airlines were listed alongside Air India and Pakistan International Air for their timeliness, or lack thereof.

Nanjing Lukou International has the dubious honour of being the world’s least schedule-observant airport, coming in at position 372, while Yulin airport in Shaanxi province was the most punctual of the mainland terminuses with 80% of its flights leaving on time. (That still ranked it as the world’s 203rd least efficient airport.)

Beijing’s Capital Airport ranked 353rd with just 53% of its flights leaving on time, and Shanghai’s two international airports, were ranked 370th and 371st, with only 37% of departures on schedule.

The top four slots went to Japanese airports, with punctuality levels in the mid to low nineties.

People’s Daily wrote that the Flightstats report had “resonated” with the public. “There is strong dissatisfaction over flight delays and people demand that the aviation sector improve its punctuality rate,” the newspaper proclaimed.

Other newspapers pointed out that even if you use China’s less rigorous definition of “delayed” flights that still meant mainland passengers spent a cumulative 232 years waiting inside airports and out on the tarmac last year (a figure calculated by multiplying the number of people on the flights by the minutes that they were delayed).

None of that seems to be deterring the China Civil Aviation Authority (CAAC) from wanting more aircraft to criss-cross the country’s clogged- up airspace. It is currently working on a plan to build an airport in every one of China’s 2,800 counties. China currently has 78 general use airports (according to CAAC) and with passenger numbers now at 390 million – double what they were in 2009 – that is deemed to be insufficient. By contrast the US has around 15,000 civilian airports and airstrips.

“We lack general airports. The important thing is to speed up their construction,” the head of CAAC, Li Jiaxing said recently. He hopes his target for increased runway numbers will be incorporated into the latest Five-Year Plan, which will be approved next year.

Media reaction thus far has been positive. “It is an disputable fact that Chinese airport construction is lagging behind the growth of the domestic economy and the expansion of airlines,” the Legal Daily acknowledged. “Airport distribution is currently too concentrated, leading to the current situation of congestion and delays.”

But as readers of WiC will know, it is not just congestion levels that makes flying in China so delay-prone.

Airlines and air traffic controllers can be excessively conservative, meaning that planes don’t take off in bad weather, or if inclement conditions are forecast for the journey. That has its benefits – China’s air safety record has massively improved over the past 15 years.

But when you add the other major factor – the military’s iron control over much of the country’s airspace – you get a recipe for world-beating tardiness.

Commercial airlines complain that the corridors in which they are allowed to fly are so narrow that they simply don’t have room for manoeuvre if bad weather hits. Other times the military withdraws access – sometimes at short notice – to make space for training exercises or travelling dignitaries.

Last year in a rare act of openness the military did warn of delays. The cause: it had ordered 12 airports in central and eastern China to reduce flight numbers by 25% due to large-scale military drills.

The main beneficiary from this sad state of affairs is China’s high-speed rail network. With frustration about delayed flights very much the norm, it is no surprise that more passengers are opting to let the ‘train take the strain’ (as an old British Rail ad once put it).

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