You Think Your Summer Travel Plans Are Rough? Spare a Thought for People in China

By James Fallows

The point of my book China Airborne was that just about everything involving China's potential, and its challenges, could be seen in its ambition to become an all-fronts aerospace power.

Chinese scientists and officials are trying to advance their civilian space program, and also their network of military satellites. Their state planners and their industrial companies are trying to build big airliners, like Boeing and Airbus. They are trying to build smaller jet and piston airplanes, like Gulfstream and Bombardier and Cessna and Cirrus (the last of which the Chinese aerospace corporation now owns). They want Air China and China Eastern and China Southern to be prominent international carriers. They want the entirety of their huge country to be connected with airlinks, and toward that end they have been building nearly 100 new commercial airports (!) and working with advisers from the U.S. and elsewhere to devise ways to guide flights to airports in the remote and mountainous Far West.

Chen Yan, one of China's female aviation pioneers,
in magazine cover on the wall of her cafe in Zhuhai.

Across the country you can find the Chinese equivalents to the Wright Brothers, and Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, and Howard Hughes and Juan Trippe, and Chuck Yeager and John Glenn, and Herb Kelleher (head of Southwest) and Fred Smith (of FedEx) and Sally Ride, and othersbut all at the same time. (For more, the novelist Dana Stabenow had a nice review this week.)

Those are the opportunities. On the other hand, we have the obstacles. The most important of them is the one that is the obstacle for many other aspects of China's development: the old-line interests of security-minded state.

China has a huge demand for more airline routes and more business-air travel, but nearly all of its airspace is locked up by the military, which only grudgingly makes it available. China has amazingly few helicopters for a country of its scale. With four times as many people as the United States, its civilian helicopter fleet is roughly one-twentieth as large. (Roughly 10,000 in the U.S., versus around 500+ in China.) Chinese purchases of helicopters, mainly North American- or European-made, could quickly double or triple—except for military and police controls that restrict their use.

All of which brings us to today's news. In a few ways, travel on Chinese airlines is "nicer" than in the U.S. The planes are much newer, since the fleets have expanded so rapidly; the cabin crews are newly hired and more chipper; and the system still operates on the quaint assumption that they should give you something to eat. 

But if you care about speed and predictability of travel, which is the main point of an airline system, China's airlines have serious problems. Even on good days, their scheduled flight times are slower than for comparable U.S. or European routes, precisely because the military lock on airspace makes them take less direct and efficient routings. And they are much more subject to delay—yes, even when compared with the U.S.

China Daily news on the coming delays.

Thus we have this summer's air travel nightmare for China. The military has scheduled a bunch of aerial training exercises in upcoming weeks. These happen to be over the airports that serve China's largest population centers, and they happen to take place during the heaviest travel period of the year (apart from the annual "Spring Festival" migration, aka Chinese New Year.) If the civilian airports have to be closed during that time, tough! You can read the details from the New York Times, from CNN, and even from state-controlled China Daily (above). Also from the China Real Time blog of the WSJ, which reminds us that China's major airports are the worst in the world for flight cancellations and delay, and that delay-induced commotions, even riots, are increasingly common results.

Young security officers at Zhuhai airport

Everything about China of the moment, and the medium-term future, involves this tension between the modernizing, liberalizing impulses and needs of its companies, entrepreneurs, universities, and citizens, and the fearful impulse toward ever-tighter control by parts of the government. That theme will give passengers something to reflect on as they wait out the delays at PEK or PVG.

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