Despite growing capacity and connectivity, flight delays at Chinese airports are getting worse, according to data from the Civil Aviation Administration of China. CAAC’s most recent report shows that, for domestic flights, the average length of delays in China increased by 50 percent over last year, growing to 24 minutes. Moreover, the number of flights leaving on time fell to 71.6 percent, versus a on-time departure rate at over 80 percent a decade ago.
The average length of delays for Chinese domestic flights increased from 16 minutes to 24 minutes in 2017
About half of delays were on account of inclement weather, 7.7 percent of flights were delayed because of “air traffic control reasons,” and an additional 32 percent were on account of “other reasons.”
The unspecified “other reasons” may refer to military drills and exercises. Overall, China’s military still controls around 80 percent of China’s airspace and allows commercial flights to use that space with their permission. However, military drills have in the past caused dramatic mass cancellations and delays of flights with little or no warning.
This policy of strict military control is a holdover from the Cold War and fears among China’s leadership about American and Soviet spying and infiltration. It does not seem likely that this policy will be changed anytime soon. Combined with China’s serious air pollution problem, it has created a “perfect storm” for flights delays and cancellations.
China’s military controls over airspace and pollution aren’t the only reasons for increased flight delays
This latest data illustrates how China’s aviation industry is becoming a victim of its own success. The number of airports in China has skyrocketed in the past few decades. In 2000, China only had just over 120 airports, and today the country has almost 220. Moreover, the Chinese government is planning on building dozens more in the next few years and to expand capacity in key hubs.
But even with rising airport capacity, the number of Chinese tourists is growing too fast for airport infrastructure to keep up. Chinese travelers made 10.5 million overseas visits in 2000, but in 2017 they made 145 million. Moreover, total passenger volume at Chinese airports grew by 12.9 percent in 2017 to reach 1.15 billion, according to CAAC. There is simply no way for airport construction to keep up with this rapid increase in passenger volume.
While the number of Chinese travelers is not going to decrease anytime soon, the poor quality of the air travel experience in China is undoubtedly dissuading at least some potential tourists from traveling, but to what extent is unknown. Unfortunately, airlines have no ability to compel limits on smog emissions or to persuade the Chinese military to be more generous with allotments of airspace, so passengers will have to make do for now.