China is known to have among the worst traffic problems on the ground, with 233 million vehicles reported to be on the road in 2012 by the Ministry of Public Security. That congestion on the roads is only getting worse, and China now has another traffic problem mounting -- in the sky.
Enormous demand growth, delays, an overly congested airspace and political and administrative issues are adding to the problem. Chinese travelers haven’t exactly met these issues with open arms either, resorting to fistfights and shouting matches with airline employees on a regular basis.
According to a report by the Global Times, the Civil Administration of China (CAAC) instituted a policy, dubbed “unrestricted take-off,” which requires planes to take off at their scheduled time from eight of the most congested airports, regardless of the availability of a landing slot at their destination.
Li Xiaojin, a professor with the Civil Aviation University of China, told the Global Times, “The policy is significant in raising the efficiency. It means that planes could take off as soon as they close their hatches.”
The policy has had a noticeable effect in improving on-time departures by 15-20 percent out of Beijing Capital International Airport according to a Beijing Times report cited by the South China Morning Post. Unfortunately this policy creates new issues, since it doesn’t create a solution for the second half of the flight: landing at congested destinations.
Brent Spencer, Assistant Professor of air traffic control training at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Prescott, Ariz. campus, said, “The United States had a similar policy in place back in the 70s. What happened is planes would [be in a holding pattern] for an hour to hour and a half and wouldn’t be able to land.”
Without a secured landing slot, planes have to resort to circling above their destination, until space opens up for a landing approach. As a result, Chinese domestic airlines will potentially be subject to increased fuel costs and numerous safety issues, including weather, fuel emergencies, and an increasingly crowded airspace at their final destination.
Fuel costs will continue to be a big hurdle for growth of Chinese airlines.
“Fuel is the number one cost to an airline,” said Jack Panosian, chair of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Prescott, Ariz. campus. “A price change of a couple cents could mean millions [of dollars] lost for the airlines,” Panosian said.
Profits of Chinese airlines may suffer more as a result of the “unrestricted take-off” policy. According to the Associated Press, the profit margin of China's airlines saw a dip in 2012 due to high jet fuel costs.
Then there's the problem of Chinese airspace being allocated mostly for military use.
“Nearly 80 percent of China's airspace has been reserved for military use. In other countries, such as the U.S., the situation is exactly the opposite," a senior executive at Hainan Airlines told the South China Morning Post.
In regards to the CAAC’s new policy, “They made a huge step in the wrong direction. What they need to do is educate the public of how the air traffic control system works,” Spencer said.
As for what the airlines could do to help with the growing air traffic problems, Spencer added, “The [Chinese] airlines should also coordinate their schedules with each other. More airplanes in a particular airspace will make it less safe.”
Panosian suggested that the CAAC implement a “merit-based system,” to tighten the quality of pilots in China.”
According to a Bloomberg report, the situation is expected to get worse, “with China’s three biggest airlines planning to add at least 273 planes in the next three years.”
“[China also seeks] to have 260 airports by 2020 from 183 at present,” according to the same report.
While the new flight policy may be a stopgap to aid public appearance, more needs to be done to deal with the increased growth of China’s air industry and the congestion that it faces in the coming years.