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Flying pains as China struggles to keep up with aviation growth
August 27, 2014, 12:34 pm

Flying in China? Prepare for lengthy airport delays. The country's largest airports, serving the mega-cities of Shanghai and Beijing, suffer more flights delays than almost anywhere else in the world. In June 2013, only 18% of flights made their departure times at Beijing Capital International Airport, according to data from FlightStats.

Shanghai was little improved, logging an on-time departure rate of 29%. A whopping 34% of flights were delayed by more than 45 minutes, while 3% were canceled outright.

While June was a particularly bad month, frequent China travelers have learned to build huge blocks of time into their schedules to account for potential delays. A variety of factors contribute to the trend, including overly cautious air traffic control and airspace restrictions for civilian aircraft. It's a problem that has caught the attention of Beijing.

There are signs that progress is being made. In the final month of last year, 43% of flights left Shanghai on time, while Beijing's rate improved to 56%. Official statistics, widely thought to be massaged, also show improvement.

Tight military control 

One of the biggest reasons for flight delays in China is that the vast majority of the country's airspace is off limits to commercial aircraft. As much as 80% of China's airspace is controlled by the military. This is unusual. In many other countries, civilian aircraft are able to fly almost anywhere, while military-only airspace is limited.

The practical effect of the restrictions is that commercial flights are funneled through narrow corridors in China. This means planes fly farther than necessary, and delays are more likely to occur because of bad weather or heavy traffic. While the military has begun to loosen some restrictions, it retains a firm grip on Chinese airspace.

Dramatic change will be difficult. China's military is not under government control -- it answers instead to the central military commission of the Communist Party.

Meeting delays with outrage

Frustration over delays and poor customer service in China's airports has given rise to a phenomenon called "air rage." The displays of outrage have evolved into something of an art form -- chairs have been thrown, gates have been blocked and airline computer equipment has been destroyed.

A few of these confrontations have even been caught on tape (watch here, here and here). In many cases, the reports are backed up with stories of epic delays and general indifference on the part of airline staffers. In one particularly notable incident, more than 2,000 passengers rioted in February at an airport in Henan Province after heavy snow delayed flights for days.

The trend is playing out amid a massive increase in the number of Chinese that are choosing to travel by plane. Thirty years ago, flying was reserved for only the wealthiest individuals. But as the middle class booms, more Chinese are taking to the skies, leaving airlines to play catch up.

Private plane? 

For those looking to avoid the hassles of commercial air travel in China, private jets don't present much of an alternative. There are only a few hundred private aircraft in China. By way of comparison, around 225,000 planes are registered in the U.S. for general aviation use.

Analysts say this trend is about to change, especially as China produces more and more billionaires. Manufacturers including Cessna, Gulfstream and Bombardier are practically salivating at the market's potential. Government regulation of the sector is still very tight, and more reforms will be needed to convince wealthy Chinese that private planes are a worthwhile investment.

Ready for takeoff

While flying in China can sometimes be a nightmare, the country earns high marks for quickly building a large-scale aviation industry. After a series of accidents in the early 1990's, Chinese airlines have greatly improved their safety records and now rank among the best in the world. China has also built thousands of shiny new airports in recent decades, including marquee facilities that put their Western equivalents to shame.

For many, the industry's progress is emblematic of China's broader development over the past 30 years -- a period frequently described as an "economic miracle."

Writing about a recent trip to China, the American novelist Gary Shteyngart described his journey between Newark and Beijing in stark terms. The New Jersey facility, he wrote, is "essentially a giant bathroom with airplanes," while Beijing's Norman Foster-designed facility is "gleaming and sinuous."

"Nowhere on earth is the fast-forward button pressed with such might and frequency," Shteyngart said of China.


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