Anecdotal evidence of airport and airline delays abounds. But some solid data might surprise all but seasoned travellers. According to FlightStats, a popular US-based provider of data on air travel, Beijing and Shanghai rank at the bottom of 35 major international airports surveyed for flight delays and cancellations. And their performance has gone from bad to worse in the past six months. Hong Kong International Airport has also reported an increase in delays and cancellations that dragged its ranking down from 22 to 29.
Last month, only 18.3 per cent of more than 22,000 flights departing Beijing Capital International Airport were on time, with 42 per cent delayed by 45 minutes or more. Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport's on-time rate fell to 24 per cent from 38.9 per cent six months ago. FlightStats also reported serious delays at provincial airports, while the performance of national and regional Chinese airlines also disappointed.
It is to be expected that airports and airlines serving the fast-growing Chinese economy would struggle to meet demand and keep to schedule at times. Sadly, however, the poor performance of mainland civil aviation and the economic cost of chronic inefficiency reflect poor management and the ridiculously unbalanced reservation of 80 per cent of airspace for the military - the exact reverse of the situation in other countries such as the US. Competition for business between major mainland cities, with excessive emphasis on passenger flow, has created logjams at their airports that have led to an increasing incidence of violent protests by angry passengers. Massive investment in new airports is not the answer. Without better management systems and more realistic allocation of airspace, air safety could ultimately be put at risk.
Among Asian airports, Japan's Osaka International tops the list with 95.9 per cent on-time performance compared with Hong Kong's 63.7 per cent. To be fair, flight movements reached 352,000 last year instead of in 2015 as expected. The Airport Authority is catching up with the provision of more parking stands, which could speed up flight movements, while the Civil Aviation Department says it is constantly working on air-traffic handling efficiency.
Despite deteriorating on-time performance, Chek Lap Kok retains its rating as one of the world's best airports. For the sake of the city's competitiveness, every effort must be made to prevent unpunctuality from undermining that standing.