China's
Unfriendly
Skies

There’s a mural that wraps itself around the rim of the yurt-style dome that forms the arrival and departure halls of the shiny new Dongsheng Airport, which serves Ordos in Inner Mongolia.

In glorious color it traces the story of Genghis Khan, the man who emerged from the steppes (which still surround the terminal), and conquered most of what was the known world back in 1200s.

One panel, set right above the entrance, seems particularly suited to those who find themselves in transit here. It depicts a huge, hirsute man—the great Khan himself—raising a beaming baby on high. It looks for all the world like the artist has captured the exact moment when the little lad is to be launched into the heavens, and his little face flushed with the sense of freedom that only comes with flight.

Well, he should be so lucky.

Nothing much at all is taking to the skies over Ordos tonight. We’ve been trapped here for more than eight hours, having sat through one cancellation, six hours of waiting, and then two hours locked inside an ancient craft that reeked of petrol and then creaked and moaned and refused to do anything except move, in turn, 50 meters straight backwards, and then 50 meters forwards.

Eight of the world’s ten most delayed carriers are Chinese airlines

The crew gave up. We deplaned, tempers well past boiling, and went to harangue the one member of the air crew who was bravely holding down her position behind the check-in counter and offering up excuses.

There are such scenes being played out every day—and long into the night, next morning and beyond—at airports all over China. As the country continues its march into modernization, air travel has become suddenly affordable, with the number of flights growing by around 13 per cent per year, and there are airlines and new airports everywhere trying to meet the new demand.

Beijing and Shanghai ranked worst of the 35 international airports surveyed

But nothing here ever runs on time. The US-based air travel data provider FlightStats revealed last week that eight of the world’s ten most delayed carriers are Chinese airlines, and in terms of cancellations and delays, the Beijing Capital International and the Shanghai Hongqiao International airports ranked worst of the 35 international airports surveyed. And if you’re making your way through China, chances are you have to route yourself through these two transport hubs.

Tell that to the crumpled businessman in the waiting lounge and you’ll get a wry smile. He’s known for a very long time that flying from the nation’s capital means only 18 per cent of your flights will leave on time, while around 42 per cent of flights will be delayed by 45 minutes or more.

He will most likely shift in his seat, offer you’re a cigarette and tell you the old line about how CAAC—which officially stands for the Civil Aviation Administration of China—really stands for “Chinese Airlines Always Cancel.”

The reasons given by airline staff vary wildly. In Ordos we were told it was the weather, it was technical problems, it was “a malfunction of the conveyer belt.” And what has fuelled growing tension country-wide is the airlines’ refusal to offer updates into flight status – most likely due to the fact that staff themselves are the last to know what exactly is going on. For passengers, there is only so much waiting one can take.

In recent weeks there has been any number of reports of sit-ins on flights, wild scenes at check-in desks as passengers try to change flights after cancellations, or even violence—highlighted by the two teachers at Wenzhou airport who were taken into custody after attacking airstaff. In their defense, they only resorted to assault after two days of waiting around and trying to entertain the dozens of children left in their care.

But as much as tempers flare, there is often a soft sigh of sad resignation that greets the “delayed” or “cancelled” sign as it appears next to your flight. On the ground here in China, everybody knows that the military controls a staggering 80 per cent of the airspace. So no matter how hard the CAAC tries to pressure its airlines—whether through threatening fines or loss of flight slots—there are only so many routes (and therefore flights) available. Throw some dodgy weather into the equation and it’s little wonder the system is in such disarray.

But even that knowledge hasn’t stopped the conspiracy theorists. Last year, when faced with a similar wait to leave Ordos, one fellow passenger recounted the story of a local Communist Party cadre who, the story goes, was flying to Beijing and whose private flight took precedence over all other departures. Suddenly struck by hunger pains—or perhaps it was a fear of in-flight meals—the cadre decided to stop off at a local restaurant on the way to airport, shutting down all incoming and outgoing flights for the next three hours while he feasted.

Is it true? Not true? It doesn’t matter really: they’re all just stories to pass the time, and we here in Ordos have plenty of that.

Mathew Scott
Mathew Scott has been covering events in Asia from his Hong Kong base for the past 20 years and has learned the hard way that you should always take a book with you when travelling in China. A very large book.
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