Stories of travel in Chinese airports are a horror genre in their own right, and with good reason: When it comes to on-time arrivals or departures, the country’s airports are literally the worst in the world.
According to FlightStats, which tracks airport statistics, Beijing’s airport ranks dead last among the world’s top 35, with fully 82% of flights failing to leave on time. Second worst was Shanghai, at 71%.
Such chronic tardiness has led to periodic passenger meltdowns and even physical altercations. Last year, the country’s Civil Aviation Administration was prompted to issue a circular urging officials to maintain better order and ensure that overexcited passengers who vent their rage by “smashing counters and rushing onto runways” are punished.
Even Hong Kong, which prides itself on its efficiency and speedy turnarounds, ranked 29th among the top 35 international airports, with only 64% of flights departing on time. That’s down from 22nd in January, when 77% were on time.
A spokesman for Hong Kong’s airport authority said that “inclement weather or the operation of airlines” might account for the increase in delays. He also cited a rise in traffic as well as bottlenecks at airports in mainland China, which he said is the destination of 10% to 20% of flights departing Hong Kong. “Of course if there are problems there they will be delays in our airport as well,” he said.
Most flight delays aren’t as punishing as the one in Shanghai last year that stranded Newark-bound United Airlines passengers for three days. Still, 42% of Beijing’s delays were considered “excessive,” defined as 45 minutes or more. And 5% of all flights were simply canceled.
Aviation experts cite military control of China’s skies as one difficulty for civil aviation. Former Hong Kong Dragon Airlines flight attendant Clare Fung, who teaches at Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University, said the airport woes are largely the result of poor air-traffic control. Another issue, she said, is that unlike U.S. airports or, say, London’s Heathrow, China’s airports are largely government-controlled. “It’s difficult to improve, to be honest, because the industry is not so commercially oriented,” Ms. Fung said.
That fact can make the reason behind delays less transparent, she said. “When I was flying, we’d always encounter severe delays flying through China, but they’d never tell you the real reason,” she said.
On one occasion in 2006, Ms. Fung recalled, her colleagues were stuck on a flight that sat awaiting takeoff on a Shanghai runway for six hours—without electricity. Eventually, some passengers felt faint and ambulances had to be called, she said.
Air travel in China has boomed, with domestic traffic in February up 13% from a year earlier, even after factoring out the boost from the Lunar New Year, a peak travel period. And during the country’s week-long “Golden Week” holiday period last fall, the number of tourists visiting China’s top tourist sites jumped by 21% to 34 million.
“More and more airlines want to fly in and out of China, more and more people want to fly,” said Ms. Fung. “The development of the aviation industry just can’t support the fast development of the tourism industry.”
—Te-Ping Chen. Follow her on Twitter @tepingchen.
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