Destination Unknown: China's Planes Now Take Off ... Without Anywhere to Land

In an effort to limit delays, the country has introduced "unrestricted takeoffs". But the strategy has just shifted waiting times from the ground to the skies.
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A passenger jet flies towards Hongqiao Airport in Shanghai. (Aly Song/Reuters)

China's epic flight delays -- caused by managerial snafus, overcrowded airspace, and air traffic controls shortcomings -- have sparked protests and fist fights, and forced airlines to offer combat training to their embattled employees. The nation's major airports have the worst delays in the world, more than half of flights from provincial airports fail to take off on time, and the situation has gotten much worse in the last six months.

The Civil Aviation Administration of China has vowed to solve the problem, and this week unveiled its response: Command planes at China's eight busiest airports to take off as soon as passengers are on board, whether there's a place for them to land or not.

The new policy, called "unrestricted take off," has already improved on-time takeoffs at Beijing Capital Airport. But it's causing a a cascade of new woes: Planes are forced to circle their destinations for hours waiting for a runway slot to open up, burning increasingly costly fuel, placing further stress on an overstretched air traffic control system and potentially putting passengers at risk.

"Waiting on the ground is always safer than waiting in the air," Yang Xinsheng, dean of the College of Air Traffic Management at the Civil Aviation University of China, told the South China Morning Post.

Nevertheless, the air is where they are now waiting. A glance early Thursday morning at Beijing Airport's real-time domestic flight arrival board showed that of the 20 flights scheduled to arrive, none were on time, ten were delayed by multiple hours, and eight others had been cancelled altogether.
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Departures, though, were mostly on schedule, with minimal delays of less than an hour.

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The policy could mean significant financial losses for airlines in China, since circling airports burns up huge amounts of fuel, which makes up a the biggest portion of the aviation industry's costs. Even before the authorities' recent order, China's big three state-owned airlines reported a big drop in 2012 profits, thanks in part to high fuel bills.

Sending planes to circle over their urban destinations while they wait for a runway also has a huge environmental cost, concentrating enormous carbon emissions in cities where air pollution is already severe.

China has grown rapidly to the world's second-largest domestic airline market, by passengers, behind the U.S. Experts say the country needs massive long-term investment in its aviation infrastructure -- not only more sophisticated air traffic control capabilities, but also a liberalization of the country's airspace. (James Fallows literally wrote the book on this.)

About 80 percent of China's air space is controlled by the military, which has reformed slower than the airline industry or regulator would like, said Will Horton, an analyst with the Center for Asia Pacific Aviation. "You start to have a pressure cooker of flights growing faster than there is space available to accommodate them," he said. Opening up more airspace and improving the technology that handles the existing airspace would help, he said.

But in the short term, Chinese aviation authorities -- clearly spooked by reports of angry passengers causing chaos at its airports -- have pushed through a short-term cosmetic solution to flight delays that could make flying in China much worse.

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Heather Timmons is an Asia correspondent for Quartz.

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