China – Under The Hood: China’s Unbearable Air Traffic Congestion and Flight Delays

Flight delay, delay, delay….The glamour of air travel is gone.

In China was it ever thus?

Unquestionably one can consider Laozi (a.k.a ‘ Lao Tzu), the ancient Chinese poet and philosopher who died in 531 BC, truly perceptive when he remarked:

“Yī wèi cōngmíng de lǚxíng zhě méiyǒu gùdìng de jì huà, érqiě bù yīdìng fēi yào dàodá mùdì de [一位聪明的旅行者没有固定的计画,而且不一定非要到达目的地]”, which roughly translates as

“A clever traveller has no fixed plans, and does not necessarily have to reach their purpose.”

For it seems this wise sage back in ‘BC’ times was privy to the staggering state of affairs that would by and large ensue by the end of 2015 when China will have built close to 220 fully operational airports (up from 175 airports in 2011) handling over 870 million passengers and serviced by 46 domestic airlines (exclusive of foreign airlines), with a fleet of just over 2,000 planes (to be expanded to 4,200 aircraft in 2020) vying for limited space overhead.  Add to this mélange the fact that China doesn’t have enough airspace (the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) controls all airspace, only allocating 20% of airspace to civil aviation), and China’s inclement weather (for example, if there is a thunderstorm impinging on a flight route between two cities, the flight will likely be delayed since it can’t divert through controlled airspace), and it is no wonder flight delays snarl China’s clogged and struggling civil aviation transportation system.

With the People’s Liberation Army Air Force blaming chronic air traffic congestion and flight delays on poor airline management and scheduling performance, “having no fixed plans” at least for the day of passage, as in “cancel all other appointments”, is sage advice indeed. China’s airlines have the world’s worst record for flight delays.”

And so to some of the tell-tale signs that all is not well regarding timely aircraft departure from Chinese airports as experienced by myself over the past 12 months almost 100% of the time.

1. The informative announcement

China - Under The Hood -  The Joys Of Flying In China - delay delay delay
Actually there is usually no information reflecting the cause of the flight delay problem, except to adopt the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) spin that the fault lies with the airline. It is not uncommon for passengers to have to wait for hours at the boarding gate without any information about how long the delay might last, while ground staff weary of being on the receiving of verbal and physical abuse usually scarper.

2. Queuing to board the aircraft?

China - Under The Hood -  The Joys Of Flying In China - Time to board - queuing for food 2
At last we’re off 🙂 Alas, wishful thinking… A queue for food handouts 😦

3. Hand-luggage?

China - Under The Hood -  The Joys Of Flying In China - Time to board - queuing for food 3
…not quite… looks like this delay is more than a case of the pilot leaving his passport at home. Noting that the first line of defence in offsetting the bubbling rage of irritated Chinese passengers is to attempt to gratify their appetites, this airline came well prepared!

 4. Food Service

China - Under The Hood -  The Joys Of Flying In China Serving meal before the plane moves
After the mad rush to get to the airport, dealing with queues at check-in, security inspection, and boarding, hungry stomachs pang just that bit more at the sight of the commencement of the on-board food service. Unless, as in this case, the aircraft hasn’t budged from its stand. Not a great omen! 😦  In China passengers can wait for hours inside a plane without any information from an equally clueless flight crew.

 5. In-flight Films

China - Under The Hood -  The Joys Of Flying In China Staring at the runway - no movement
As last the aircraft is on the move, taxiing towards the runway. Slowly it dawns on us that we are no longer moving, instead being treated to a live 80 minute silent film about the concrete surface just below the plane’s belly.. Mind-numbing in-flight entertainment akin to watching paint dry.

6. Angry Passengers

China - Under The Hood -  The Joys Of Flying In China -ready to take off and a demand for explanation why the plane is delayed
Air passengers in China are noted for adopting extreme measures to vent their anger and demand an explanation over why the plane is delayed. This really furious customer sprang up just as the plane was turning toward the runway ready for take-off!

7. The Hard Landing

China - Under The Hood -  The Joys Of Flying In China hard landing
Hard landing: Thump! Bounce! Bounce! Bounce! Swerve! Brake! “What the hell was…..?” as we bleary-eyed travellers are instantaneously brought to our senses. Seems the guys up in the cockpit are also worn out. At last, and at least, we’ve finally arrived at our destination. Now just get me off this aircraft!

The joys of flying in China, soon to get worse. “A clever traveler has no fixed plans, and does not necessarily have to reach their purpose.”

Read the somewhat related blog ‘China – Under The Hood: “Bu Hao Yisi” – The animated joys of everyday living in China’

China – Under The Hood: “Bu Hao Yisi” – The animated joys of everyday living in China

Butt Head Against The Wall - China - Under The Hood -Bu Hao Yisi - The animated joys of everyday living in ChinaOh the mind-numbing exhilaration of everyday living in China, especially if you are a “laowai 老外 ” or foreigner. The longer I live in China the more I appreciate how listening Chinese style has potentially more health benefits than Yoga!
Appreciating …
  • that what’s not being said often hints at the true meaning
  • that Chinese will hear the same words but interpret things completely differently
  • that Chinese are not comfortable with being direct and confronting people with bad news

… is for China veterans one of the best ways for soothing mind, body, and spirit, as distinct from blood curdling angst.

 Here’s what happened yesterday within a 1 km radius of my place of abode in downtown Hangzhou:

Act  #1 —-  Provincial Headquarters of Bank of China (China’s largest State-owned bank)

Grrrr. Why do I need to provide five signatures to change a US$100 bill into local Chinese RMB? And why do I have to wait for the Bank of China teller assigned to the task of changing money to come back from her lunch when at least 5 other staff in front of me can do the same job? Why oh why?

Act #2 —-  China Mobile (China’s largest mobile phone service monopoly)

Finally, local money in hand I headed out onto Fengqi Road and up to Yan’an Road where China Mobile‘s main office is located.  As as a customer of 5 years standing – on my 3rd China Mobile number and having spent 10s of thousands of RMB (would consider myself to be a dream customer) I wanted to subscribe to China Mobile‘s roaming service so I could use my China mobile number during my Christmas vacation back home in Ireland. Perfectly straight-forward, so you would think.

Me: “I wish to apply for the roaming feature please.”
Customer Service agent: “You have to go to ICBC (Industrial and Commercial Bank of China) to pay a RMB 3,000 deposit.”
Me: “What?”
Customer Service agent: “Yes, that is the regulation.”
Me: “But, when I went home last August I only paid RMB 500 for roaming.”
Customer Service (CS) agent:  “Ah yes, but since October you have a new number so you have to pay RMB 3,000. If you have a number for 6 months or more then you pay only RMB 500”
Me (frustrated): “But I have been your VIP customer for 5 years. What is more important to you, the 5 year customer loyalty, or the new number? Surely the business relationship I give you is more important and I should only have to pay RMB 500”
CS agent: “Wo bu hao yisi” (I’m so embarrassed我不好意思),  which is the habitually spoken ‘crisis management reaction’ used by customer facing workers throughout China when asked to do something they can’t do or or not assigned to do.
CS Manager: “Women bu hao yisi (We’re so embarrassed我们不好意思), as the manager gets in on the act, simultaneously absolving himself and his team of all responsibility. 
CS Manager’s Manager: “Mei banfa (it can’t be done, no way out / 没办法 ). When these words are spoken my request becomes a lost cause. There is no solution since nobody has the power to agree to authorise a reduced roaming fee taking into account my 5 years of loyalty to their brand. 

Act #3 —– The Plumber

Scene #1 —  Floor of apartment is flooded (again)
Me: “Where is all the water coming from?”
Plumber #1: “Wo kan yi kan (Let’s take a look / 我看一看)
Scene #2 — 15 minutes later cigarette half way down his throat, mobile phone pinned to his ear, door bell rings, Plumber #2 arrives, not too happy to be woken up from his afternoon slumberThey both stare at the floor, press their feet up and down on the tiles water spurting everywhere, shake their heads, breath in (guttural sounds) deeply,  exhaling in unison, blowing out a thick cloud of smoke….
View from Hangzhou – Wild joys of everyday living in China
“Haven’t a clue”.
Plumber #1: “Bu xiao de (Local Hangzhou dialect for “I have no clue” / 不晓得).
Me: Baring teeth “Hey, no smoking in the apartment!”
Plumber #2: “Bu hao yisi.” (I’m embarrassed /不好意思) and proceeds to stub the cigarette out in the kitchen sink.
Me: “Where is the water coming from?” Crying
Plumbers: “Zhen de bu xiao de” (Really don’t know /真的不晓得 ).
Me: “Huh!! You are plumbers, right? What do you mean you don’t know?
Emotional State of Mind: Has been a long day, and my patience has been worn super thin, “angst” comes to mind but manifestly I am still projecting an air of calm.

Plumber #2 (Glancing at his watch): “Wu dian zheng. Xia ban!” (It’s 5 o’clock, we’re finished for the day / 五点钟.下班!).
Me: But, what about the water and leak?
Plumbers: “Women bu hao yisi” (We’re so embarrassed / 我们不好意思).

View from Hangzhou - Wild joys of everyday living in China - The Plumber
“We’re so embarrassed”

…and on that closing note they are gone for the day.

Act #4 —– The Cake Shop Attendent

Scene #1 —–  11.30 am – The Cake Shop, Sofitel Hangzhou West Lake Hotel 

Me: “I want you to send this cake and these chocolates on Christmas Day to these people, at this address, with this telephone number. It’s meant to be a surprise gift, so please don’t contact them until Christmas Day!”
Cake Shop Attendent (CSA): “Hao. Mei wenti.” (Yes. No problem /好.没问题)

Scene #2—–  5.00 pm – My Hangzhou apartment, having just received a text message from the Cake Shop notifying me that that the cake and chocolates have already been delivered. Immediately I telephone the Cake Shop. 

Me: You said you would deliver the cake on Christmas Day. It was meant to be a surprise
CSA: “Bu hao yisi.” (I’m  embarrassed /不好意思), “but the receiver of the chocolates and cake was very surprised!

And so ended Friday 19th December, an otherwise uneventful day living in Hangzhou.
China - Under The Hood - Bu Hao Yisi - The animated joys of everyday living in China - keep calm and take a deep breath