Infrequent Flying Snarls Civil Aviation Sector

As Flight Delays Rise and Travelers Fume, Industry Experts are Calling on Authorities to Open More Air Space

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 of 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 a Shenzhen airport staff member. And when weather conditions turn 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 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.

Token Changes

Li and his predecessors have repeatedly asked SAAC to make more air space available, resulting in a few token changes. The authority, for example, acquiesced by adding temporary air routes and making it easier for airlines to apply for new routes.

The latest move came in late July when CAAC eased its controls on departures at eight airports including those serving Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. As a result, civil flights leaving these cities can no longer be delayed or barred by authorities in destination cities unless harsh weather or military controls mandate.

Authorities have also taken steps to improve airline customer services and flight management.

Wen Libin, deputy chief engineer of the CAAC Air Traffic Management Bureau, said at a 2010 seminar that total flights had increased to 1.75 million by 2009 after a 13.5 percent annual increase for each of the previous six years. Yet flight route distances had increased over that period only about 2.6 percent annually to 164,000 kilometers by 2010.

Chinese airports are allowed a limited number of takeoff and landing corridors, unlike the United States where there are no corridor restrictions.

Some in the industry expect the latest measures to have little impact, however. One expert said the changes could force flights to spend more fuel and time circling destination airports, waiting for permission to land.

Experts say much more will have to be done to improve airline punctuality. A first step could involve getting Beijing to relax its grip on the nation’s air space.

One aviation expert told Caixin that in his opinion solving China’s flight delays will require first and foremost “determination among higher authorities.”

Interest in social harmony could move Beijing to act. Flight delays have triggered plenty of traveler discontent, as reports from across the country have been heard describing airline customer-staff arguments tied to late flights.

Travelers also get hot under the collar when a delay is announced without a clear explanation. An information gap tends to annoy travelers and sometimes causes conflicts, said Spring's Zhang.

But airlines themselves are sometimes as much in the dark as their clients about reasons for delays. Zhang notes airlines also suffer when flights are delayed in terms of higher costs, such as the costs of settling with unhappy customers and burning extra fuel.

Civil Air Oversight

China’s civil aviation industry was spun off from the nation’s military in March 1980, ending Air Force control of all civil aircraft. The plan called for the civil aviation industry to operate independently and cooperatively manage air space together with the Air Force.

The State Council and Central Military Commission in 1986 set up the Air Traffic Control Commission. It was supervised by the military and mainly staffed with soldiers. The commission today still approves all new civil air routes and emergency route change requests, the latter which also need Air Force backing.

Today, said a source, the commission oversees air space general management and coordination with help from military zone agencies and the Air Force.

CAAC’s separate Air Traffic Management Bureau manages only the air space and routes that civil aviation can use. The bureau was formed in 1994 and given charge of air route management—one year after CAAC was allowed to independently operate a flight route linking Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

In June 2000, CAAC was given full rights to supervise all civil aviation routes.

CAAC has looked carefully at the military’s two “restricted” aviation zones, 66 “danger” zones and 199 “limited use” zones, not to mention a variety of military training zones with restricted air space, in hopes of finding air space for new flight routes.

In November 2007, CAAC won commission approval to reduce the vertical separation for airliners in flight from 600 meters to 300 meters at altitudes between 8,400 and 12,500 meters. This move increased the number of flight levels to thirteen from seven, opening more sky to airliners.

In the fourth quarter that year, flight punctuality increased to 84 percent from 81 percent the previous quarter. But the space was soon used up, and in 2010 the punctuality rate fell to an all-time low of 75.8 percent.

That same year, CAAC started negotiating with the air traffic commission in hopes the Air Force would open temporary routes for civil flights. Permission was granted for the World Expo that year in Shanghai, said Sun Ling, an official at CAAC’s air traffic bureau.

More progress was made in June 2011, when more air space was opened for flights serving Shijiazhuang and Shenyang, eventually adding some 40 flight routes.

Since August 2012, the Air Force has agreed to open more temporary routes to civil flights. But the new space can’t keep up with growing demand.

“It’s like opening a new road to ease a traffic jam,” said an airline manager. “If there are too many cars, a jam will form on the new road.”

A CAAC official said despite efforts to open more temporary routes and space for flights at new altitude layers, the problem of tight air space will not be resolved unless the air control system changes.

Li suggested China open military training bases overseas to ease the use of domestic air space. This is just one of many ideas stirring among civil aviation authorities.

A source close to CAAC said the agency’s officials have been ardently looking for ways to increase air space, but so far there have been few results.