Despite hefty transport investment, China’s flight delays are here to stay – for now

Xiaowen Fu says Beijing’s massive investment in airports and high-speed railways is paying off, even though some congestion is inevitable

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 February, 2016, 9:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 February, 2016, 9:00am

China’s chunyun or “spring migration” gives rise to the greatest mass movement of people on earth. In the 40 days around the Lunar New Year, some 2.9 billion trips are made using public transport networks. Indeed, in the first 10 days of the holiday this year, 74 million trips were made per day on average.

Such a surge in travel volume puts tremendous pressure on the nation’s transport infrastructure, leading to enormous congestion and delays at a time when they are least desirable. At large airports such as Shanghai’s Hongqiao and Shenzhen’s Baoan, close to half of all flights were delayed by more than 30 minutes.

In view of China’s slowing economy, would it be a good idea to increase investment in key transport infrastructure such as rail and airports?

Even at the best performing airports, such as Kunming ( 昆明 ) and Qingdao (青島), about 30 per cent of flights were delayed. Newspaper headlines such as “Homebound passengers trapped on road” or “Emotional passengers go on riot at airports after delays” are common.

Is there any way of addressing this annual transport chaos? In view of China’s slowing economy, would it be a good idea to increase investment in key transport infrastructure such as rail and airports?

Of course, China is not alone when it comes to congestion. In the US, at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, for example, more than 28 per cent of all flights were delayed in 2014, with an average departure delay of nearly an hour. It is easy to understand why the US Department of Transportation has identified reducing congestion as its No 2 management challenge, second only to aviation safety.

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The obvious solution to the congestion problem is to build more capacity. More than 50 civil airports have been constructed in China since 2006, increasing the total number to about 200 by last year. Another 30 airports are being built, and 60 are being expanded.

The problem is that most of the newly added airports are small and actually face problems of underutilisation. Li Jiaxiang, director of China’s Civil Aviation Administration, admitted last year that 150 Chinese airports could not break even. The top 10 airports handle about half the nation’s total traffic volume. However, expanding airports in these metropolitan areas is very costly and time-consuming.

To be fair, China has done a remarkable amount of work. The new terminal 3 at the Beijing international airport took only about four years to build.

In comparison, environmental assessment alone in most developed countries can take up to a decade to complete. Due to legal and community complaints, it took several decades for the Narita and Haneda airports in the Tokyo region to undergo major capacity expansion. Boston took almost three decades to add one runway due to disputes with the local community.

The Chinese aviation market had been increasing at 15 per cent per year since the early 1980s. Growth has slowed recently, but it is likely to remain close to double-digit figures over the next decade. While second airports are earmarked for Beijing and Chengdu ( 成都 ), constraints such as air space, air traffic control and ground transport in most metropolitan regions will ensure a shortage of capacity in the short to medium term.

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If adding capacity is not enough, what else can we do? Tokyo seems to have dealt with its airport constraints by using larger aircraft. On average, each flight departing from its two airports carry 180 to 200 passengers. In comparison, the figure has remained at about 130 passengers at the Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou airports. The average aircraft size for flights between China’s largest airports has actually fallen slightly over time.

This is because passengers prefer high flight frequencies, and thus airlines prefer to put on two flights with smaller aircraft rather than one flight using a larger aircraft.

However, this leads to more severe congestion. In Tokyo, large aircraft have been used even for short-haul travel to domestic destinations.

It is interesting that such a market-based mechanism, first proposed in the US and Europe, has finally been adopted by the Chinese government

In addition, 80 per cent of the domestic traffic between major cities such as Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya is carried by high-speed rail, so precious airport capacity can be used for international travel.

China has recently taken some innovative measures. In December, the rights to take off and land, or “airport slots”, were auctioned for use at Guangzhou’s Baiyun airport, raising 550 million yuan (HK$657 million). Such a move is a milestone in the industry. Airport slots have long been traded, exchanged and transferred at airports around the world. However, government slot auctions have not been implemented in the past, although it has been proposed for decades in the US and Europe.

In 2008, the US Department of Transportation planned to auction some slots at the airports in New York, but it was forced to postpone the move indefinitely when the airports threatened to go to court against the policy. Senator Charles E. Schumer called the idea of slot auctions “hatched by a handful of ivory tower types in the administration” without providing an alternative solution.

It is interesting that such a market-based mechanism, first proposed in the US and Europe, has finally been adopted by the Chinese government, which still carries some legacy of a planned economy.

China has also been aggressively investing in high-speed rail, and operates a total mileage of more than the rest of the world combined. If costs such as emissions, pollution and accidents are all taken into account, high-speed railways are far more sustainable than aviation. It is probably the only way to cater for super-large traffic volumes for a market of China’s size.

Some congestion at peak times is inevitable; it is too costly to build airports to cater to the largest possible volume

In the first 10 days of the Lunar New Year period, high-speed railways carried 34 million passengers, or 46 per cent of total rail traffic. Few realise the critical role played by high-speed railways in reducing congestion at airport and on the roads.

Although continued congestion and delays can be expected at China’s largest airports, overall levels will be alleviated thanks to aggressive investments in airports and high-speed rail. In the long term, better air traffic control and air space utilisation, together with a better allocation of airport capacity, will also help. Some congestion at peak times is inevitable; it is too costly to build airports to cater to the largest possible volume.

Another problem may emerge, however. That is, how will these newly built airports in small cities operate without subsidies and repay their debts? For them, congestion may be a solution.

Dr Xiaowen Fu is a senior lecturer in aviation and maritime at the University of Sydney Business School’s Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies