As I write these next words, I am sitting on an Air China flight from Shanghai bound for Beijing. The plane is sitting at the gate, it is already half an hour late, there is no indication of when it might take off.
“I apologize for the delay,” says Dragonair pilot John Campbell politely, but with an underlying touch of frustration (Air China is using a couple of rented Dragonair planes complete with cockpit crews on the Shanghai-Beijing route). “We have been negotiating with air traffic control. The reason for the delay is separation on the airway between Shanghai and Beijing. I will keep you advised of any developments.”
I presume “separation on the airway” means the gap between aircraft in the air corridors. Which is a jolly good thing. But how come New York’s airports and Heathrow, for instance, can handle so many flights simultaneously and China has trouble with a few aircraft an hour?
The fact is that delays are the rule on flights between China’s two major cities.
I don’t have any statistics, but my guess is that something over 80% of all flights on this route are late. This is plainly ridiculous, and one wonders how the system is going to be able to handle the avalanche of people that will be traveling within China in the months up to and through the 2008 Olympics. The system as it stands now would collapse.
What causes this consistency of delay? Is it the fundamental inefficiency of the state-run airlines? Partly. Is it the ultra cautious approach that is taken with regard to thunderstorms and other meteorological phenomena? Not entirely irrelevant.
But the key factor seems to be air traffic control. I don’t know what they are doing in the control tower, or what rules they are following, but it plays havoc with my business meeting plans. The military, ‘tis said, plays a role in air space management, and foreign airlines have been pushing for years for a more open skies approach – less restrictions, more air corridors.
It surely has to happen. If it doesn’t, when the high-speed trains start hurtling between Shanghai and Beijing, you’ll find me in a business carriage seat, by the window.
My flight, by the way, finally took off 45 minutes late.