Anger over delays on mainland flights
Hong Kong flights in and out of the mainland are facing increasing delays, and passenger anger at being kept waiting for hours aboard grounded planes is rising.
Because so many of its flights are linked to the mainland, Dragonair is bearing the brunt of the problem - which is caused by growing air traffic and restrictions on air space because of military flights, VIP slot allocations and weather alerts.
Flights to and from mainland airports have been delayed for up to eight hours. About four out of every 10 Dragonair flights are taking off late and the average delay for flights by all airlines has climbed to 48 minutes. Most are made to wait on the tarmac with passengers on board before being given clearance for take-off.
The Hong Kong Civil Aviation Department confirmed that delays caused by 'flow control' issues are on the rise. The number of flights affected between April and June was more than four times the number in the corresponding period last year. It has raised the matter with mainland aviation authorities.
Pilots say police had to be called to board a grounded flight in Hong Kong to deal with one irate passenger. They warn morale is slumping among cabin crew who bear the brunt of passengers' ire.
A memo circulated to regional and international pilots by David Kerr, the president of the Hong Kong Airline Pilots Association, warns the situation is now untenable and 'becoming a flight safety issue'.
'Unruly passenger incidents in undetermined delays are of particular concern,' Kerr said in the memo, seen by the Sunday Morning Post, which warns the issue is compromising Dragonair's operating efficiency.
Dragonair executives have acknowledged the seriousness of the issue in internal memos to pilots which describe the delays as 'extremely frustrating for passengers and crew'. But they say resolving the issue with mainland aviation and military officials is 'a case of chip, chip, chipping at a fairly solid block'.
Flight statistics circulated to pilots show that around four out of 10 Dragonair flights took off more than 15 minutes late over a two-week period last month. A management report said military exercises caused the closure of some airways, adding to the already heavy backlog of flights due to 'flow control' and causing severe disruption.
Pilots say passenger anger is being stoked by the need for planes to be fully boarded with doors closed before clearance for take-off can be requested. Only then are cockpit crew informed of hold-ups. Almost invariably, they are told the reason for the delay is 'undetermined'.
They say priority is being given to mainland airlines when delays occur, with Dragonair and other foreign carriers at the back of the queue. That has led to suspicions that take-off slots are being sold or that favouritism is being exercised in the handing out of slots.
Narrow air routes to and from Shanghai and Beijing are the most prone to shutdowns because of bad weather or military activity, but the delays have knock-on effects on flights serving other airports. Ningbo , Nanjing and Hangzhou have been hit particularly hard.
Kerr declined to comment beyond saying: 'It is an issue we are concerned about and we hope that some urgent action can be taken to improve the situation, for the good of both passengers and the airline.'
Another Dragonair captain said: 'Our guys are saying enough is enough. You can't expect passengers and employees to deal with these huge delays every day.
'The situation has got considerably worse in the past two years. If there aren't weather delays, there are delays because of military airspace use. The system is archaic and Hong Kong is at the very end of the line when it comes to take-off slots.
'Some passengers come to the front of the plane to complain and all we can tell them is that this is the way it is in China. When I tried to explain it to one passenger he told me: 'That's not true. You're just making that up'.'
A Dragonair first officer said some passengers in Hong Kong were demanding to be let off planes when delays stretched to hours because they had often missed the meetings or appointments they were flying to attend.
The first officer said one cause of the delays was air traffic controllers being overcautious in closing down airspace because of bad weather. Military and VIP flights were other causes, he said.
'It's not uncommon to see 20 passenger planes held back as an Air China jet carrying a VIP flies out,' he said. 'It won't be a national VIP either, just a provincial official. There are an awful lot of VIPs in China.'
Kerr's memo, sent to Airline Pilots Association members in Hong Kong, the mainland and overseas, says: 'There needs to be a simplification of the air traffic flow management in the PRC [People's Republic of China]. Scheduled services need to be given priority for departure through a slot allocation system that is transparent and fair.
'If airspace is closed for military use or a weather saturation, it should not result in a complete closure but be limited to an altitude ban, or allow alternative routing around it so that services can continue without hindrance. This is currently not the case.'
It concludes: 'The situation is now untenable, and requires all parties to give ... their full attention to improving airspace management.'
A Civil Aviation Department spokeswoman said 5.46 per cent of all Hong Kong departures for the mainland were delayed as a result of flow control from April to June, compared with 1.27 per cent in the same period last year when air traffic was hit by the global economic slump.
The average delay in the April to June period was 31 minutes in 2007, 46 minutes in 2008, 44 minutes last year and 48 minutes this year, she said.
'The CAD ... takes every opportunity to raise the issue of flow control delays with our mainland counterparts. The issue was again discussed in May and the CAD was informed that efforts were being undertaken to improve the situation,' she said.
'Introducing additional air routes is understood to be one of the initiatives for expanding the air traffic capacity [to alleviate] the delays. For the long-term development of the aviation industry, CAD will continue to work with the mainland aviation authority on improving airspace usage and minimising delays.'
A Dragonair spokesman said: 'Dragonair is aware of the problems over delays on flights to and from China. For most days in general, delays range from 15 to 20, 30 minutes. There could be some bad days as a result of bad weather and flow control issues, which happen roughly two to three times a month [and] in which delays could be to up to six, seven or eight hours.
'We are aware that IATA [the International Air Transport Association], on behalf of the industry, is working actively on this matter with the relevant Chinese authorities.
'The problem is one of airspace capacity and affects all carriers who operate to China.'