Beijing must address the lack of civil air space

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 July, 2014, 4:39am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 July, 2014, 9:25am

Military drills lasting nearly a month in some of China's busiest air space take a lot of organisation, including tight security. Unfortunately, such secrecy can also leave travellers in the dark about the closure of air space to civilian aircraft. As a result, thousands have milled about pivotal eastern airports in frustration and uncertainty this week after the authorities announced cuts in civilian traffic of up to 25 per cent until mid-August to accommodate the drills.

Affected airports include Shanghai, Nanjing and Wuhan. At least this time there was eventually an announcement, unlike previous occasions.

There is no parallel for it on a comparable scale. The military has effectively controlled air space since the People's Republic was founded in 1949, allocating as little as 20 per cent of it to civil aviation - compared with nearly 90 per cent in the US, where the air force controls only narrow corridors or air space remote from busy airport hubs. Relaxation of low-altitude restrictions has not kept up with air transport growth, as the number of passengers has doubled in less than seven years.

Officially, congestion delays about 25 per cent of China's domestic passenger flights, with "traffic control" and weather conditions blamed for about half the hold-ups. Industry experts say the figure can be significantly higher, even during good weather. The authorities blame the airlines for nearly 40 per cent of delays. But it does not take much digging to find that the underlying cause of flight delays is lack of civil air space. At this stage of China's development the cost to airlines and in lost productivity is good reason to address it.

Technological and scientific advances in China's defence capacity, and the growth of commercial aviation, raise the question whether the military needs to maintain such an iron grip on air space. The revival of militaristic sentiment in Japan is unhelpful in this respect. Hopefully, the current drills will satisfy defence chiefs that relaxing it will not endanger security.