Little to cheer for China’s frequent fliers

Deep-seated problems with China's aviation industry mean its airlines and airports will face the problem of how to cushion regular delays for years to come.

FT.com

Of all the things you might want during a lengthy flight delay, bouncy cheerleaders waving white pom-poms in your face are probably far from the top of the list.

But the airport in Dalian, a city in northeastern China, was widely praised for just such a response to foggy weather last week. When flights were grounded, stranding some 5,000 passengers, the airport authorities provided tea and a squad of dancing cheerleaders.

The cheerleaders were without question an improvement over a frequent alternative in Chinese airports: utter chaos. Over the previous few weeks, flight delays had led to scuffles, police deployments and, on two separate occasions, passengers storming the runway in protest.

Frequent fliers in China were bemused but hardly shocked by these stories. We have all experienced interminable delays and bungled responses by airlines leading to passenger tantrums.

Delays are a fact of air travel globally. But the frequency and severity in China begin to add up: something has gone wrong with the Chinese aviation industry.

The government has built gleaming airports around the country, airlines have acquired large modern fleets, and in-flight services from food to entertainment have improved. But the most basic need of any air traveller – to get from point A to point B on time – has suffered.

China’s economic growth over the past two decades has been remarkably linear. Whether looking at industrial output, income levels or retail sales, the situation in China has improved in a more or less straight line. Air travel is one major exception to that rule.

Data from the civil aviation authority show that flights have become less and less punctual. Last year 77.9 per cent of flights in China departed on time, down from a peak of 83 per cent in 2007. And that only measures when aircraft close their doors, not when they take off, so the true number of on-time flights is lower still. By comparison, 85 per cent of flights in the US arrived on schedule last year, according to government figures.

So what has gone wrong? Industry insiders point to three factors, all of which connect to broader points about doing business in China.

First, while government investment has enabled China to quickly expand its aviation industry, excessive government control is also holding it back. This is most striking in airspace management. Only about 30 per cent of Chinese airspace is for civilian use, with the rest under military control, according to Liu Guangcai, a professor at the Civil Aviation University of China. Commercial aircraft are confined to congested corridors with little flexibility.

Second, for all of the money spent on airports, China still has scope for far more investment. At the start of 2010, the US had 15,095 airports for its 300 million people, while China had 1.3 billion people and only 175 airports. No wonder Beijing is set to break ground on the world’s largest airport, having opened the world’s second-biggest four years ago.

Finally, there are vast gains to be had from improving Chinese corporate management. The civil aviation authority last year blamed 41 per cent of delays on airlines themselves, with problems ranging from poor fleet co-ordination to inexperienced flight crews.

"At the same time as upgrading its hardware, the industry’s software really needs improvement,” said Li Lei, aviation analyst with China Securities Co.

However, the solutions to delays – freer airspace, more investment and better management – will all take years. In the meantime, airlines and airports must pay more attention to how to cushion the blow from regular delays. At present their responses are often ham-fisted. They share little information and offer even less in the way of compensation.

The inadequacy of their responses has been underlined by the two recent runway protests. First, a flight to Harbin in the north was diverted to Shanghai and delayed overnight because of thundershowers. Angry that they had received no compensation, 20 passengers forced their way on to the tarmac and stood in the path of an aircraft that had just landed.

Then, with word and photos of that spreading online, travellers in Guangzhou were inspired to stage their own tarmac protest when their flight was delayed by four hours.

Hence the welcome that the Dalian cheerleaders received in Chinese media – at least the airport was trying to do something to distract passengers from the tedium of waiting. Other airports are also busily devising new ways to deal with delays, though some are rather harsher.

Police stationed at Beijing airport signed an agreement with Air China last week to beef up officer patrols at check-in counters and boarding gates when delays occur, using a show of force to silence pesky passengers.

Pom-poms or police batons? If that’s the choice, I know which one I’d pick.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.