• Fri
  • Dec 19, 2014
  • Updated: 6:29am
Column
PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 July, 2013, 5:12am

No relief in sight for long-suffering passengers as Chinese air services go from bad to worse

Bad management, poor regulation and the PLA's refusal to free airspace bode ill for passengers

BIO

Wang Xiangwei took up the role of Editor-in-Chief in February 2012, responsible for the editorial direction and newsroom operations. He started his 20-year career at the China Daily, before moving to the UK, where he gained valuable experience at a number of news organisations, including the BBC Chinese Service. In 1993, he moved to Hong Kong and worked at the Eastern Express before joining the South China Morning Post in 1996 as our China Business Reporter. He was subsequently promoted to China Editor in 2000 and Deputy Editor in 2007, a position he held for four years prior to being promoted to his current position. Mr. Wang has a Masters degree in Journalism, and a Bachelors degree in English.
 

These days, any frequent air traveller to the mainland can recount nightmarish experiences of being helplessly stranded at airports amid long delays while they endure horrible service from airline and airport staff.

My personal worst occurred two years ago when I tried to take Air China's regular 5.30pm shuttle from Hong Kong to Beijing. Flight CA110 is supposed to take 3½ hours. But I didn't arrive in Beijing until 5.30pm the next evening - the result of bad weather at my destination, terrible airline management and the mainland's dreadful air traffic control system.

So, it would have surprised no one when the mainland's leading airports and airlines were singled out for having the worst delays in the world in a report by FlightStats, a popular US-based air travel data provider.

Eight of the 10 most delayed Asian airlines were Chinese carriers. Beijing Capital International and Shanghai Hongqiao International airports - two of the nation's busiest airports - rank at the bottom of 35 major international airports surveyed in terms of delays and cancellations.

Beijing's on-time departure rate was only 18 per cent last month, with 42 per cent of flights delayed by 45 minutes or more. Hongqiao's - the second worst on the list - had only a 24 per cent on-time rate.

While most frustrated passengers suffer silently in the face of delays of one or two hours - or even four or five - some go to extreme lengths to vent their anger. In the past few months, there have been reports of irate passengers staging sit-ins, refusing to disembark or even commandeering a plane.

Assaults on frontline airline and airport staff occur almost daily, with some of them ending up in hospital and passengers being arrested.

Such passengers who find themselves detained are not always of the type one would expect to lose their tempers.

In one instance, two female teachers were reportedly taken in by police at Wenzhou airport for attacking airline staff after they were told that their two-hour flight to Beijing would be delayed for two days, leaving them and several dozen children in their charge stranded.

Stung by the FlightStats report, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) on Friday issued a stern directive to airports and airlines to improve on-time departures and arrivals.

But passengers are unlikely to hold out much hope as the CAAC, which has long been mockingly known as "Chinese Airlines Always Cancel", makes similar empty promises every year.

To be fair, flight delays are a global phenomenon because of the soaring demand for air travel. This is particularly true in China where increasingly wealthy mainlanders are flying more and more on business and holidays.

You also can't control the weather. But chronic mismanagement and weak regulations have also contributed to the problem.

Beijing, like Shanghai, may boast world-class airport facilities, with its Terminal 3 designed by British architect Norman Foster and billed as the second-largest terminal in the world. But the capital's airport is also known for suffering massive delays at the slightest hint of rain or snow.

Airline and airport staff, too, are known for fobbing off stranded passengers with the standard "bad weather" excuse. When pressed further, they often magically produce another reply, such as "air traffic control". One can easily tell they usually have no idea what's happening. Such an attitude can understandably cause tempers to flare.

Another problem adding to delays is that the military controls most of the nation's airspace and refuses to hand more of it over to civilian use.

In contrast to developed nations where the bulk of air space is open to civilian use, the Chinese military controls more than 80 per cent of airspace, making it difficult for airlines to plan more routes to cope with the demand or divert flights to avoid bad weather.

With bad management, poor regulation and the military's refusal to compromise, the mainland's massive flight delays appear destined to only get worse.

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This article is now closed to comments

scmpcoolguy
I agree with johnyuan in that I personally experienced how the powerful "elite class" in China do have priority over civilian flights. A couple of years ago, I was on a private jet owned by a HK tycoon and we were to fly from Shenzhen to Shanghai from SZ Huang Tian Airport. Since the HK tycoon was a CCCP national delegate, I was told by the first officer of his Gulfstream 5 that his private jet was given priority and we could cut ahead of all the other 777s and 767s run by Air China and China Eastern already in the taxiway and went straight to the head of the queue. I saw some of the pilots in the 777s and 767s and they were not amused. To say the least, China is indeed a land ruled by the powerful.
KwunTongBypass
If the announcement would be: "We regret that flight XYZ will be delayed du to the Glorious People's Liberation Army Air Force using the airspace for a VIP transfer" then : a) fewer passengers would be venting their frustration on the ground staff; b) maybe someone in the "jing" gets the hint.
lucifer
Naming Party leaders as CEO's does not help the airlines. They have no idea how to run and airline and how to provide service to customers. Insztead they rely on their monopoly positions to earn revenues, shirt changing customers on service whenever it is convenient. I used to have a gold card on a Minland carrier....I have never felt so unwantred, unneedded and disrecpeted, despite that I was spending USD81K per year on the airline. At the end of the day I was just another passanger and constantly kicked around. I found another route through another third country and the Chinese carriers do not get a dfollar from me anymore.
It also does not help that the PLA is constantly commencing unannounced military exercises, causing all kinds of disruptions. The airspace also need to be deregulated and taken from the PLA. Chinese airlines are horrbile. I just don't think they reralize this.
johnyuan
If knowing the capacity limit partly due to military air space domination, yet still schedules over-capacitated flights would be irresponsible and unwise in the long run for airlines. I am doubtful airlines in China being that foolish. More likely, without evidence, scheduled flights are preempted by special privileged flights for people of importance. That is jumping the line. A persistence culture even at the tarmac. I think understandably flying to and out of Beijing airports are the most difficult to be on schedule. Poor management by the airport for scheduled flights indeed.
Shadow
what about service standards of SAR departments ? all of them here are much more worse than compare to other side.
is any department is accountable in SAR as it use to be in past ?
A-Z list of departments......................lets see further
babetree
On the morning of the day I was to fly back to Hong Kong from Shanghai Hongquiao, I received a text message from my Hong Kong based travel agent advising me that our afternoon flight on Hong Kong Airlines was to be delayed until further notice and she had provided me with a China Number to call for enquiries and assistance. That number was never available by the way regardless of the number of times I have tried, so I went straight ahead to the airport at 16:00pm as planned only to be told by the check-in staff that the flight would be delayed until 22:30 pm. Other than that information, no other details nor reasons for the delay were given and we were not even offered to be transferred to another flight nor given any beverages nor snacks.
And so I proceeded through Immigration to the assigned boarding gate before the scheduled (delayed) take-off at 22:30pm only to find NO Boarding signs, No airline staff manning the boarding gate, and NO announcements whatsoever pass 22:30pm. I ended up waiting another few hours and other passengers on the same flight were furious. When everyone were beginning to lose it, a group of Airline Staff finally showed up and stationed themselves at the boarding gate next to the initially assigned one for our flight and they gestured for us (stranded passengers) to board. It took less than 5 minutes to board everyone onto the airplane and we finally took off at, I don't remember precisely the time, but I guess it was around 2:00am.
peter.lui.581
according the former President 江泽民, China is supposedly 依法治国!
what a joke!!!
crbfile
don't worry, the situation will improve. the timing? it does not require a crystal ball to see that at some point in the next 36 months a group of disgruntled air travallers are going to go stark raving mad and rampage. The fallout will be the gov fixing the air traffic control problems. that's how things work in China. If it's not causing massive social disturbances, it won't get fixed.
babetree
Amidst all this chaos, NO ANNOUCNEMENTS NOR REASONS FOR THE DELAY WERE EVER GIVEN.
I did write a letter of complaint to Hong Kong Airlines by the way with an extended version of this story (my travel companion was gravely ill and they offered no assistance at all despite of her horrible state of being at that moment) and I never received any reply at all. This was back in January 2011.
lamlm38
yeah.. i dont understand those PLA air force clowns.. they control like 80% of the airspace and yet still not enough space to exercise.. i wonder in war time how would they perform :)

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