China flight delays show military grip on airspace

Passengers gaze out the window while airliners line up near a runway at Beijing International Airport, No. 1 in the world for flight delays.

Private surveys say eight of the world's 10 worst-performing airports are in China, bottlenecked in great part by military shutdowns.

HONG KONG — China's fast growing air travel market is the world's second biggest. But when it comes to flight delays, it's No. 1.

Shanghai resident Chen Chen learned the hard way on a recent business trip when she flew out of Inner Mongolia about 24 hours later than scheduled. Her evening flight to Beijing was delayed until the next day, and when staff couldn't give her a departure time, she bought a ticket on another airline. That flight left late, too.

"That's the worst experience I've ever had," said Chen, a modeling agent. "I was numb when I reached Beijing. No words. I just wanted to kiss the ground."

Related: China's airlines go west in search of growth

Chen's ordeal was typical of the problems faced by many air travelers in China. Delays are so frequent and lengthy that scenes of travelers smashing up check-in desks, brawling with staff or storming the tarmac have verged on the commonplace.

According to official figures, 75 percent of China's flights left on time last year. But private surveys paint a different picture. A recent report by travel industry monitor FlightStats Inc. found that just 18 percent of flights at Beijing's airport left on time in June, the lowest proportion among 35 airports worldwide, with Shanghai second at 29 percent. Eight of the 10 worst-performing airlines were mainland Chinese carriers.

China's flight delays: A passenger sleeps on a bench while waiting for his flight at Beijing International Airport.AP Photo: Alexander F. Yuan

A passenger sleeps on a bench while waiting for his flight at Beijing International Airport.

Congestion is inevitable as jetliners are forced into narrow air corridors that snake through restricted military airspace. Those airways will become even bigger bottlenecks, with demand for domestic air travel forecast by IATA to grow 10 percent a year in China, adding nearly 160 million new passengers by 2016.

"You start to have a pressure cooker of flights growing faster than there is space available to accommodate them," said Will Horton, an analyst at CAPA-Center for Aviation. "Until there is reform of air traffic, growth will be stunted."

Related: China's airports, airlines worst in flight delays

In the U.S. and many other countries, most airspace is given over to civilian traffic while military zones are typically small and in remote areas far from busy airports.

In China, planes are routinely delayed when the military shuts down civilian airspace at short notice for air drills.

Delays also happen when large thunderstorms sweep in, as is common in summer. Pilots say they're routinely denied permission to detour around storms into restricted military areas in order to avoid severe turbulence. So planes typically sit on the ground, waiting for clearance.

"Those delays build up and it cascades through the rest of the system, so by the evening, the system is clogged," said Todd Siena, partner at Shanghai-based consultancy Avia-Tek.

Sometimes, no reasons are given for are delays.

Related: Disgruntled man hurt after detonating explosion in Beijing airport

Pat Morris, a former pilot for Asian carrier Dragonair, said on one flight from Hong Kong to Beijing, air traffic control demanded the plane go into a holding pattern for an indefinite period while it was still two hours away from its destination.

After the crew replied by saying the plane wouldn't have enough fuel to land in Beijing, controllers told them to pick an alternate airport for a landing.

"We queried the reason for this request and we were told, 'weather at Beijing.' However, no adverse weather was reported or encountered," he said. They managed to "negotiate" so that they could continue on to Beijing "without much delay," he said.

The second problem is air traffic control that some industry experts say has become unduly cautious after Chinese regulators were shocked into focusing on safety following a string of fatal accidents at domestic Chinese carriers in the 1990s.

Pilots complain about longer separation distances, with planes being kept as much as 10 miles apart on landings at airports, compared to three miles in other countries. They're also required to stay 2,000 feet apart vertically, twice the distance elsewhere.

Related: Airport blast leads China to reflect on injustice

On landing, Chinese controllers require pilots to descend to certain levels and airspeeds, while in other countries, pilots can make a continuous descent to the airport.

"It's almost like a staircase. And as you go each step further, then you have to slow down," said Christopher Jackson, a director at Shanghai-based aviation investment firm Genesis. "That means more time in the air. When you're controlling the aircraft in that manner, it's easier for them to get backed up."

China's flight delays: Passengers look at cancellations and delays of departure flights at Beijing's International Airport.AP Photo: Alexander F. Yuan

Passengers at Beijing's International Airport check cancellations and delays of departure flights.

But experts say such measures are stopgaps. What's needed is deep-rooted reform, though there's little sign that the People's Liberation Army is willing to loosen its grip on airspace.

A new airport is "like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound," said Jackson, adding that pace of reform is up to President Xi Jinping, who is the ultimate head of the military and the aviation regulator.

"I think Chinese air travelers are going to be stuck with delays until President Xi decides that he wants to do something about it," Jackson said.

If the delays aren't resolved, more people could opt to travel on the high-speed trains, an increasingly viable competitor. Authorities plan to double the country's high-speed rail network to 11,120 miles by 2015.

"While a flight from Beijing to Shanghai may be faster than the train, a delay could make the air journey longer and sway a preference to trains," which are more convenient because they offer wireless Internet, said Horton.

Chen, the business traveler, said that after her nightmare journey, "I'll try to take high-speed trains as much as I can, to avoid taking planes."

She said her fellow passengers got angry when they learned about the extended delay to their late evening flight from Hohhot, the capital of the Inner Mongolia region. They yelled at staff and threw plastic drink bottles at a senior manager. Chen complained no helped her find a hotel.

"No one took care of us. No food, no drink," she said. She got a refund and flew on another airline instead of trying to get compensation. "I was just so desperate" to get home, she said.

Researcher Fu Ting in Shanghai contributed to this report.


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