OK first the bad news. Air travel in China is a frustrating game.
More frustrating than O’Hare, JFK, Heathrow and Kingsford-Smith – combined.
You may have seen videos of angry customers abusing airline ground staff after waiting hours in airports for delayed flights. These aren’t isolated incidents, though the physicality probably is. While China is the second-largest aviation market in the world it is close to the bottom for on time departures and customer satisfaction.
The big three airlines (Air China, China Eastern and China Southern) have added dozens of flights to accommodate 300 million people flying domestic routes every year. While the aviation industry in the West evolved over 80 years, China is trying to catch up from almost zero, in 15 years. And it is doing so in airspace that is still controlled by the military.
Flights are often delayed, canceled or forced to fly through bad weather on orders from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The PLA isn’t ‘just’ the Army. It also controls China’s Navy and Air Force and put mildly, it influences the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC). In short, the PLA controls China’s skies.
The PLA only shares 80% of the total available airspace for non-military flights with CAAC and it often imposes unpredictable and tough restrictions. The PLA says that it is dealing with growing tensions on the country’s borders at the same time as the commercial airlines are dealing with growth.
Beijing Capital Airport is at the frontline of this transport problem. It rose from the world’s 14th busiest airport to the world’s number 2 in the last ten years and is expected to surpass Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, with 96m passengers annually, to become the world’s busiest airport in 2016. But.
Only 20% of its flights are on time. That’s 80% leaving late. And Beijing is not alone. No airport in China has on time departure rates above 40%.