Flying in China

If you live in China or come to visit the country, chances are you will have to take a domestic flight sometime. And then you will find out an uncomfortable truth… flights, particularly domestic flights, are never on time in China! In global rankings about airports’ punctuality rates, Chinese airports are always in the bottom end of the list.

Shenzhen airport looks cool, but flights never ever depart on time.

The main reason for the lack of punctuality is that civil aviation can use less than 30% of the air space in China. The rest, over 70%, is reserved for the military. Sometimes, if the army is doing practice exercises or other actions, civil airports are asked to reduce their air traffic by as much as 75%! When a flight is delayed or cancelled because of this reason, the official motive given is “air traffic control”.

International flights are usually less affected (maybe because China wants to “keep face” in front of foreigners), but domestic flights can be a nightmare. It also seems the smaller and less important your departure or arrival destination is, the chance your flight will be delayed will be greater. This is basically the reason why I stopped using the Wuxi-Suzhou airport and now fly from Shanghai Hongqiao all the time.

Once I was in a small city in Jiangxi and my flight back to Shanghai was in the evening. The airport was as big as a small sized bus station and it was literally in the middle of nowhere, 45 minutes away from town. Then the news came: the flight had been cancelled and the next one was in 24 hours. The airline intended to leave us there on our own (there weren’t even taxis) until the next day. Obviously, the passengers were furious and the ground personnel had to arrange a bus to take us to the city and book rooms in a hotel.

But my worst experiences in an airport have been in Shenzhen: I think my flights have not departed on time even once. Apart from the usual “air traffic control”, every time it rains the airport becomes paralyzed and all the flights are delayed. It’s interesting to note that in Shenzhen it rains an average of 21 days per month, so the airport chaos is basically a constant. Once, coming back from Hong Kong, it was raining quite hard and the flight was delayed for like 5 hours. This was before the new terminal of Shenzhen airport was open, and the old one was definitely too small for all the flights and passengers it had. There weren’t even seats for everybody, and only a couple of lousy and overpriced restaurants.

The last time, my flight back to Shanghai was at 4:30 pm. That morning it had been raining and this was how the information screen greeted me:

Yellow means delayed…

After waiting for over 3 hours, my flight ended up being cancelled because the crew had been on shift for more than 16 hours. This time the airline didn’t try to leave us there and they arranged a bus and a hotel very fast (if not, I think there would have been blood in the terminal). We finally flew the next morning and arrived home 18 hours later than we were supposed to. If this was Europe, we would have gotten a monetary compensation! But Chinese law does not protect consumers as much as European law.

So, the moral of the story is: if you have to take a domestic flight in China, be warned that the possibility of a delay is extremely high! Bring a book, a videogame or something to pass the time, and always pack one extra underwear, in case your flight is cancelled and you have to stay one more night!

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