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Check In China

Published: Friday August 16, 2013 MYT 9:53:00 AM
Updated: Friday August 16, 2013 MYT 9:57:05 AM

When flight delays are normal

China’s three international airports – Beijing Capital, Shanghai Pudong and Guangzhou Baiyun – are always ranked last among 30 major international airports when it comes to flight punctuality.

When I travelled from Kuala Lumpur to Nanjing in May, I had a first-hand experience of flight delays in China.

My connecting flight from Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport to Nanjing Lukou International Airport was supposed to depart at 4.50pm, but it was delayed twice and meal boxes were distributed to affected passengers in the departure hall.

Finally, the announcement for the 6.50pm departure came. Passengers boarded the aircraft and buckled up, but were told instead that the flight could not take off due to bad weather.

As heavy rain pelted against the aircraft window, passengers started to get edgy and impatient.

A few passengers wondered aloud if they should get off the plane or reschedule their flight altogether.

However, they were advised against doing so because, according to the cabin crew, that would move our flight to the last position in the list of flights waiting to take off.

Tension ran high in the cabin and passengers had many questions for the flight attendants.

“Why can the other aeroplanes land in this airport while our flight is not allowed to fly?”

“How much longer do we have to wait?”

“Will your airline arrange for transportation to take us into the city when we reach Nanjing? It’ll be close to midnight by the time we touch down.”

My hat off to the cabin crew on duty. They tried their very best to pacify the passengers while maintaining their poise and courteous attitude.

Three hours went by and the rain finally stopped. Two passengers decided that they had had enough. They removed their carry-on baggage from the overhead compartment and headed to the aircraft door.

To everyone’s relief, they returned to the economy cabin minutes later with the chief stewardess who announced the good news everyone was waiting for – our flight was finally going to depart.

Flight delays are not unusual in China.

According to the monthly On-time Performance Report released by FlightStats Inc, three international airports in China – Beijing Capital, Shanghai Pudong and Guangzhou Baiyun – are always ranked last among some 30 major international airports.

Take July, for instance. Beijing airport’s on-time departure rate was 17.83% and Shanghai’s was 20.89%.

(Ranked ahead of them were Istanbul at 41.74% and Paris at 58.64%. Tokyo Haneda Airport topped the list at 91.28%)

In June, it was 18.3% for Beijing and 28.72% for Shanghai.

Guangzhou, which was not included in the international list in the June and July reports, had an on-time departure rate of 25.94% in May. Beijing’s was 25.75% and Shanghai’s was 35.74%.

On Weibo (microblogging site), there are accounts dedicated to disseminating information on fight delays and aviation-related news.

In addition to emotional meltdowns of passengers, brawls and arguments that ensued following the delays were also shared by Weibo users.

What I had witnessed on my Nanjing-bound flight was considered mild; there were cases of passengers who slapped the cabin crew or hit the ground staff when things did not go their way.

No wonder flight attendants had to worship two Chinese words “zhengdian” (punctual) on a makeshift altar inside the aircraft gallery, as depicted in a photograph that was widely shared lately.

A similar photo also went viral in 2011. It showed an air steward bowing to juice cartons stacked in the form of “zhengdian”, with three incense sticks in his hands to boot.

The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) has recently produced a Flash animation to explain the reasons – in detail – behind the flight delays.

Bad weather, busy air traffic, mechanical repairs and passengers arriving late at the boarding gates are the common causes.

The media reported that only 20% of the country’s airspace is allocated to civil aviation while the rest was reserved for military use.

In a statistics report, CAAC said that China had steady growth in air passenger volume from 2008 to 2012.

The total number of passengers amounted to 319 million in 2012, which was an increase of 8.9% compared to 2011.

The average punctuality rate for 2.5 million flights last year was 74.83% – the delays were caused by respective airlines (38.5%), air traffic control (25%), weather (21.6%) and other reasons (14.9%).

Cui Jianqing, the deputy director of the CAAC air traffic management bureau’s operations and management centre, announced an effort to raise punctually on his Weibo account.

The takeoff restriction for flights was lifted for flights between eight airports – Beijing, Shanghai Pudong, Shanghai Hongqiao, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Chengdu, Kunming and Xi’an. Beginning July 18, flights in these airports are free of air traffic control, except during severe weather.

The new policy has drawn mixed reviews so far.

While some agreed that it would improve on-time departure, others were not so optimistic. Among their concerns were delayed arrival due to congestion in the destinations, extra fuel costs incurred when the planes circle in the sky awaiting slots to land, and negative impact on other airports that were not given the priority to depart.

Tho Xin Yi (thoxinyi@thestar.com.my) found these too amusing not to share. Last month, a man attempted to sneak a tortoise on board in a burger at the Guangzhou airport. On Monday, a woman tried to travel with her hen at the same airport. Both animals were denied boarding.

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