Misery for Chinese air passengers as flight delays hit new heights

Passengers left low as postponements and cancellations rise to highest levels in years as a third of departures fail to take off on schedule

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 August, 2015, 12:10am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 August, 2015, 4:54pm

Spending hours trapped on the tarmac is the stuff of nightmares for many air passengers. But for an increasing number of Chinese travellers, it's a reality.

Flight delays and cancellations increased for the fourth consecutive year last year to reach their highest levels since such data was first made available in 2006, according to the Civil Aviation Administration.

About 937,000 - a third - of all mainland flights did not leave on time last year, according to the regulator. It blamed air traffic control, weather and the airlines in roughly equal measure.

Delays and poor communication have become big gripes for frequent fliers, many of whom now expect such problems.

READ MORE: Mile-high criminals targeting passengers on flights into Hong Kong on the rise

"If you can leave within two or three hours of your scheduled departure time, that's pretty much on time," said James Hsiao Mingjie, 35, an American lawyer in Hong Kong and a frequent flier to Shanghai.

Chinese airports and airlines ranked the worst in the world for punctuality last year, according to US-based FlightStats.

Cathay Pacific was reported to have planned to cut flights between Hong Kong and Shanghai, after mainland airspace limitations caused 230 flight delays in May and June between the cities.

Hsiao recalled waiting on the tarmac for five hours on a Shanghai-bound flight from Hong Kong last autumn. Hsiao had sat on the plane for about four hours when it was required to return to the gate and he had to wait another hour because cabin staff had exceeded their working hours limit. "It was so frustrating. I was sitting there, unable to do any work because we couldn't use our laptops. We just sat and waited," he said.

Kristano Reinhart, an Indonesian working in Shanghai, said there was a lack of guidance for passengers over delays.

"You waste so much time being stuck at the airport not knowing what to do," said Reinhart, who last month experienced a nine-hour delay flying from Hong Kong to Shanghai.

READ MORE: Five tips to save you time - and sanity - while travelling by air in China

A crew member at Dragonair said she expected delays when flying to and from Shanghai. Her colleagues had also had delays of up to nine hours, she said.

"It's so confusing and frustrating," she said. "Mentally it's tiring, and stressful because the passengers might be very angry."

Delays have even caused violence. On a Hong Kong Airlines flight to Beijing last month, six mainland tourists were charged with attacking crew members after a six-hour delay. When a Hong Kong Airlines flight to Shanghai was cancelled last June, more than 70 passengers refused to leave the aircraft for 18 hours.

Bonnie Zhang Siqi, 26, who travels domestically two to five times a month, was once delayed for five hours by bad weather on a flight from Huangshan , in Anhui province, to Beijing.

Mainland flights carried 390 million passengers last year, 10 per cent more than in 2013.

Pilot Charles Cao's worst delay was eight hours at Xiamen Gaoqi International Airport.

Cao, who works for a mainland airline, said most delays occurred in southeast China because the region had more flights.

Because the PLA controls most of China's airspace, military activities also cause delays. Two Beijing airports will be closed for three hours on September 3 for a military parade commemorating the end of the second world war.

To streamline air traffic, authorities announced in April plans to establish 10 new routes serving Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, and to negotiate with the military to create new ones.