25 August 2019
Flight delays are likely to persist until the end of the month. Photo: Feeyo
Flight delays are likely to persist until the end of the month. Photo: Feeyo

PLA to blame for flight delays, but airlines foot the bill

Since last month, thousands of air passengers in China, especially those on the eastern routes, have been spending more time waiting at the airport than their trip would take.

Flight delays have become a normal occurrence, and airline staff often find themselves at the receiving end of passenger complaints. There are some cases of passengers and airport staff coming to blows, and injuries from such incidents have been reported.

Late last month, when a flight to Shanghai was canceled, angry passengers at the Shenzhen airport overturned the airline’s service counters and beat up several of the ground service crew.

Blame, of course, should be heaped on the People’s Liberation Army, which is conducting extensive drills that run from July to August. It has virtually cordoned off the entire airspace covering Shanghai, Zhejiang and Jiangsu.

The Ministry of Defense insists that the ongoing exercises are just one of many factors for the delays, but figures from the China Civil Aviation Administration (CAAC) show that adverse weather conditions made up less than 20 percent of the delays, while “traffic control” accounted for 35 percent, Xinhua reports. “Traffic control” is a fancy term used to explain delays caused by military drills and similar activities.

Air traffic control officers will not allow a civilian passenger aircraft to take off or enter the airspace covered by such activities until the military gives the all-clear, a CAAC official told the Economic Observer, adding that such restrictions are being imposed for the safety of everyone.

Even without those restrictions, only 20 percent of China’s airspace is open to civil aviation, compared with 80 percent in the United States. There have been repeated appeals for the military to open more space to ease roadblocks in the sky, but so far the calls have fallen on deaf ears — China’s military has never made any official response.

More than 70 percent of China’s civilian airports are located in the coastal regions and many flights serving Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen have to fall in line to enter the airspace of neighboring regions.

That is also the reason why many are concerned that even if a third runway is built at the Hong Kong International Airport, the extra capacity may not be fully utilized since many flights to and from mainland cities as well as destinations in Europe and North America will still have to fly through the Shenzhen and Guangzhou flight information regions, where traffic congestion is a long-standing issue.

While air passengers are furious, airline operators are losing money.

A China Southern (01055.HK, ZNH.US, 600029.CN) captain told news portal The Paper that airlines are more eager than anyone else to keep their flights on schedule as aircraft utilization rate is a core indicator of an airline’s profitability.

A one-hour delay could mean additional costs of up to 100,000 yuan (US$16,191) as the airline will need to pay more for ground services, overtime allowances and other expenses.

According to CAAC, airlines only need to compensate passengers if the flight is delayed for more than four hours because of the airline’s own fault such as in the case of a mechanical failure. But since delays are happening more frequently and lengthily nowadays, they need to provide complimentary dining coupons and accommodations to prevent the situation from getting worse.

If the airspace is closed just after boarding, engines have to be on standby and air-conditioning has to be kept on to ensure a comfortable environment for the passengers. And a delay in one flight will have a domino on other flights, especially if a plane flies a series of routes.

All this entails extra fuel costs and other expenses that will eat into the airline’s income.

– Contact the writer at [email protected]


EJ Insight writer

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