Aug 13, 2013 07:11 PM

In Depth: Infrequent Flying Snarls Civil Aviation Sector


(Beijing) -- Getting away for a little surf and sand ought to be easy for Beijingers like Mr. Wang who recently boarded one of the daily, four-hour flights that link the capital and sub-tropical Hainan Island in China's far south.

But airport delays seriously complicated Wang's trip, leaving him frazzled after a 30-hour slog to the Hainan resort city of Sanya.

His is not only a typical experience for travelers using Beijing Capital International Airport these days, but it's also just a snapshot of an air traffic crunch that's squeezing the nation's passenger airline industry.

Officially, China's domestic passenger airline flight takeoff and arrival punctuality rate fell to an all-time low 74.8 percent in 2012, after dipping below 80 percent in each of the previous two years.

But many industry experts say these official calculations are too generous. The actual on-time rate for flights at the Shenzhen Bao'an International Airport – one of the nation's busiest – was less than 50 percent on average during good weather, according to an Shenzhen airport staff member. And when weather conditions turned bad, less than 20 percent of all flights were taking off and arriving as scheduled.

In June, timetables were even less reliable at Beijing's airport and Shanghai Pudong International Airport, the city's largest, according to the U.S.-based civil aviation website FlightStats. The website gave the airports on-time ratings of 18.3 percent and 28.7 percent, respectively, putting them at the bottom among 35 major airports surveyed worldwide.

Every airline has been affected by the contagion of lateness. Bad weather and-or "air traffic control" are among the oft-most cited explanations announced to delayed travelers.

Since 2010, flight delays have been mounting during the country's thunderstorm-prone summer months. Storms were cited as the reason for 1,200 flight cancellations by the nation's flagship carrier Air China in June alone. And on July 8, bad weather was blamed when Air China cancelled 230 domestic and international flights, and delayed another 118 for no less than four hours.

When weather conditions are good, travelers waiting in airport terminals or sitting aboard idling jetliners are often told that "air traffic control" is behind the delay. Indeed, according to the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), traffic control has been at the root of as many as 28 percent of all flight delays every year since 2010, with another 21 percent connected to weather issues.

But airlines most often take responsibility for the long waits, said CAAC, which ruled that the companies could be blamed for 38.5 percent of all delays in 2012 alone.

No Room

Not every frustrated traveler and airline executive is satisfied with these kinds of general explanations for flight delays.

So some have dug deeper, and in so doing they've found that a critical shortage of civil air space for jetliners is also to blame, but infrequently mentioned, in China.

Industry experts say the amount of air space allotted by central government authorities to civil aircraft falls short of meeting demand. And the situation over the past year has worsened. Airline traffic has mushroomed to transport 680 million people last year nationwide, rising 9.5 percent from the previous year, according to the CAAC.

"Big airports are running out of air space," said a CAAC official who refused to be named. "Some improvements have to be made by airlines, but fundamentally flight delays are caused by inadequate air space."

Unlike most countries, where most air space is open to civil aviation, China's is strictly managed by the State Air Administration Committee (SAAC), which is under the State Council, and the Communist Party's Central Military Commission.

Most of the nation's air space has been assigned by these top Beijing authorities for military use alone, which means civil aviation access is prohibited. CAAC's head Li Jiaxiang, puts the amount of sky available for passenger and other civil aircraft at only about 20 percent.

Li revealed the 20 percent figure publicly for the first time in 2011 at a legislative meeting. He added that nearly 90 percent of all air space can be used by civil aviation in the United States, and attributed China's frequent delays to too little open sky.

Limited air space has reduced the flexibility needed to handle civil flights during times of bad weather or an emergency.

China's civil aviation sector is the world's second-largest, after the United States, and according to CAAC it's likely to grow by up to 13.5 percent annually from now through 2020.

If one flight is delayed due to a lack of air space, said an airline employee a domino effect of scheduling setbacks will ensue that CAAC categorizes as delays caused by the airlines. A private survey in 2010 found 43 percent of one airline's flight delays were sparked by other flight delays.

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