Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Choking aviation system threatens China's ambitions

Choking aviation system threatens China's ambitions

Last month Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific airline began to cancel some routes to mainland destinations – a surprising decision given the huge potential in China, where air journeys have doubled since 2008.

But Cathay's reason is not demand. It's because flights in China have become so unreliable that the airline could no longer profitably connect passengers through its giant Chek Lap Kok hub to onward intercontinental sectors.

Flight delays in China have become legendary. Eighty-two percent of Beijing's flights run late. Chinese airports and airlines are ranked the worst in the world for on-time departures. Beijing's own regulator, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC or 'Chinese Airlines Always Cancel'), admits that one-third of all national flights are behind schedule. But this measure generously considers only 'gate-away' performance, ignoring the many hours that planes then spend idling on taxiways.

Beyond the comical and not-so-comical incidents of misery, stupidity and rage, China's choking airline system threatens its longer-term dream to build a globally competitive aviation industry.

Here is a typical day at a major terminal. Weather permitting, the first flights embark from 6am, with delays steadily building through the morning. An 8am flight may actually take off at 10 or 11am. With luck, the backlog subsides a little in the early afternoon, but starts building again from 4pm until 10pm, with the crescendo at dinner time. On a good day, factor in two hours extra. On a bad day, with delays accumulating over time and the cascade effects of late connections, passengers could be home eight hours late. By that time, at a Chinese airport far from town, taxi drivers are scarce, surly and extortionate.

And things are about to get much worse in the next month as Beijing locks down for its 3 September victory parade. [fold]

The worst affected route is the east coast corridor from Beijing to Shanghai to Guangzhou. Some of the nearby cities like Nanjing and Hangzhou suffer fearsome delays too. Given the geographical constraint on the country's seaboard, it's clear why high speed rail has been so successful and why train travel in China can compete with aviation over much longer distances compared with other countries. Observers were initially sceptical that the Beijing-Shanghai express (a 5- hour trip) would pay off, but the Ministry of Rail evidently understood its edge. Better a reliable, comfortable connection than a faster but highly erratic one.

China's bullet-train success stems from other factors, of course. But the point is to underscore the importance of supporting infrastructure for industrial ecosystems. Germany builds great motorcars because it has autobahns. China itself leads in rail because of its population density and construction prowess. The US developed leading aeronautical businesses (eg. in avionics, aero-engines and composite materials) because of its open skies. It has thousands of airports and a fleet of 200,000 general (private and business) aircraft alone. These figures are one to two orders of magnitude more than China's. 

Predictably, Beijing has a plan: to expand, rapidly.

One expert calls China 'an airline factory' and surmises that 'perhaps because new airlines promote economic growth, CAAC is approving a lot of them' (CAAC may have safety concerns about this expansion, but China has a good track record, certainly relative to other Asian countries). Defying global trends, the industry is splintering in China as dozens of city governments start small full-service airlines, usually with a 'Big 3' state-owned airline partner. One hundred major new airports are sprouting up across the Chinese mainland and beyond. Not to be left out of the One Belt One Road party, the industry even has an (yep, you guessed it)  Air Silk Road. In the next 20 years China will need a new airliner every 29 hours, plus 500,000 commercial pilots to fly them

There is one problem remaining: airspace. Adding more planes and pilots won't ease congestion; it will worsen it. The military has been reluctant to cede its restricted zones (reckoned at about 70% of national skies versus 15% in America). While low-level flying is opening up slowly (for helicopters and drones), the PLA does not like to share higher altitudes. Filing civilian flight plans is a nightmare. Air traffic control issues are complicated everywhere, but local pilots have no doubt that the biggest problem is the Air Force's jealous control of China's skies.

This is not merely a rant about inconvenience. The Chinese airline industry has permanently lost domestic passengers to train travel. As a result, overseas flights are growing 2.5 times faster than internal ones, becoming a sensitive trade issue as Chinese airlines push out globally. Washington already gripes that its airlines get horrible slots in China's overcrowded gateways.

But the biggest victim could be China's own aspiration for an advanced supply chain of aerospace manufacturing and services. It wants to emulate Europe and America, not Russia. Without an efficient commercial sector, it will be harder to build the foundations for both civilian and strategic aviation excellence, even with China's money, energy and ambition. By hogging the skies, the PLA Air Force may be its own worst enemy.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Chris.

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