Airline traffic has grown faster than infrastructure to support it, leaving China's skies in almost permanent gridlock.
By Barbara Demick, September 16, 2013
Travelers at Beijing Capital International Airport look outside at
planes waiting to take off. Chinese authorities threatened to penalize
airlines for excessive delays, so airlines tend to hustle passengers
into planes that then pull away from the gate, making it look like the
flight is on time, but don’t leave until later.
TAIYUAN, China — Air China Flight 1236 was supposed to take off at
8:10 p.m. for Beijing from Xian, hometown of China's famous terra cotta
It felt like the warriors
could have marched faster. What was supposed to be a 100-minute flight
last month ended up delayed, diverted and canceled to the point that it
took passengers 18 hours to get to Beijing.
China's skies are in a state of almost permanent gridlock. During the
month of July, only 17.8% of flights departing from Beijing's airport
were on time, according to FlightStats. In August, on-time departures
improved, but only to a miserable 28.8%. The U.S. website ranked Beijing
worst out of 35 top international airports for punctuality, with
Shanghai close behind.
The maddening delays have
become a drag on the economy and the trigger for near-riots. In a nation
that prides itself on social order, state media reported 26 brawls at
Chinese airports between May and August. One Hong Kong airline has
started teaching its flight attendants kung fu.
Flights here are delayed for pretty much the same reason highways are
backed up: Explosive economic growth has produced traffic faster than
infrastructure has improved.
Since 2003, the number of airline passengers in China has nearly quadrupled, to 319 million last year.
Meanwhile, airspace is limited by the People's Liberation Army, which
controls most of the skies above China. In a 2011 interview with state
news media, Li Jiaxiang, head of the Civil Aviation Administration of
China, revealed that the military controlled 80% of the airspace. In the
U.S., roughly 17% is federally controlled.
Air traffic controllers in China also err on the side of caution, the
result of strict regulations imposed after a spate of accidents in the
early 1990s. Flights are spaced about six to nine nautical miles apart,
which means 20 to 40 planes can land on a runway every hour (as opposed
to 60 in the United States).
In preparation for the 2008 Summer Olympics,
China spent more than $3.5 billion building its showcase Terminal 3 at
Beijing Capital International Airport. The glass-atrium vanity project,
the world's second-largest airport terminal, made Beijing look rich but
did nothing to alleviate the congestion in the air.
"It is like building a bigger parking lot. It didn't expand the
airspace, so things only got worse," said Xu Hongjun, a professor at the
Civil Aviation University of China.
Xu said it would require a decision at the highest level of the Chinese Communist Party — probably from President Xi Jinping, who is also head of the military — to prioritize civil aviation over military use.
"Airspace is a sensitive topic. You have to figure out how to divide
the airspace and balance national security with economic growth, and
that has to be done at the highest level of government," Xu said.
With its vast distances, mountains and gorges, China is better suited
for travel by air than rail. Under a five-year plan released in 2011,
China said it would invest $230 billion to construct 55 airports. A new
airport, as yet unnamed but expected to be the world's largest, is
planned for Beijing's Daxing neighborhood.
For the time being, more passengers have meant more delays and
frustration. A new genre of cellphone video on YouTube shows airport
brawls in which stools become projectiles and irate passengers smash
telephones and computers.
One stormy night in July, there were three separate incidents at
Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport in which passengers beat up
airport staff members, some of whom suffered injuries that required
hospitalization. The following weekend, 30 passengers stormed a runway
in Nanchang, in Jiangxi province, after a seven-hour delay.
"The airlines are always coming up with different excuses. You never
find the right person to ask, and the passengers just get angrier," said
Tao Yuanyong, a Beijing travel agent.
The stock answer when passengers ask why a flight is delayed is "air
traffic control," a vague phrase implying there's no clearance for an
airplane to take off or land.
The crisis hit a breaking point this summer, the worst time of year
for delays because of the rainy season. Stung by a flurry of bad
publicity, civil aviation authorities on July 18 enacted a policy known
as "unlimited takeoff," which lets planes from the busiest airports take
off regardless of whether a landing strip is available. Aviation
authorities have also threatened airlines with penalties and loss of
routes if they incur excessive delays.
The result is that airlines tend to hustle passengers into planes
that then pull away from the gate, making it look like the flight is on
time. The passengers end up strapped in their seats on the tarmac
waiting for a runway — or in flight, circling an airport, wasting fuel
and polluting the environment.
The Air China flight from Xian last month, already delayed nearly two
hours in boarding and taxiing on the tarmac, landed in Taiyuan rather
than Beijing. A thunderstorm was the cause, passengers were told.
After an hour on the runway in the coal-mining capital, the flight to
Beijing was canceled and passengers placed for the night in shared
rooms in a guest house run by the provincial water authority.
Many, no longer trusting Air China, took a train for the remaining
300-mile journey and arrived in Beijing at 3 p.m. Those who gambled,
waiting for a plane, did only slightly better, making it to Beijing at
1:30 p.m., roughly 18 hours after checking in for what was supposed to
be a less-than-two-hour flight.