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

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 July, 2013, 5:12am

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.