HONG KONG - China's fast growing air travel market is the world's second biggest. But when it comes to flight delays, it's No. 1.
Shanghai resident Chen Chen learned the hard way on a recent business trip when she flew out of Inner Mongolia about 24 hours later than scheduled. Her evening flight to Beijing was delayed until the next day and when staff couldn't give her a departure time, she bought a ticket on another airline. That flight left late too.
"That's the worst experience I've ever had," said Chen, a modeling agent. "I was numb when I reached Beijing. No words. I just wanted to kiss the ground."
Chen's ordeal was typical of the problems faced by many air travellers in China. Delays are so frequent and lengthy that scenes of travellers smashing up check-in desks, brawling with staff or storming the tarmac have verged on the commonplace.
According to official figures, 75 per cent of China's flights left on time last year. But private surveys paint a different picture. A recent report by travel industry monitor FlighStat Inc. found that just 18 per cent of flights at Beijing's airport left on time in June, the lowest proportion among 35 airports worldwide, with Shanghai second at 29 per cent. Eight of the 10 worst performing airlines were mainland Chinese carriers.
The chronic delays underscore the challenges for China's domestic carriers as they strive to meet booming passenger demand. They face two longstanding problems that won't be easy to fix. The first and biggest is the powerful military's tight control of airspace, which analysts say leaves as little as 20 per cent of the country's airspace for civilian traffic.
Congestion is inevitable as jetliners are forced into narrow air corridors that snake through restricted military airspace. Those airways will become even bigger bottlenecks, with demand for domestic air travel forecast by IATA to grow 10 per cent a year in China, adding nearly 160 million new passengers by 2016.
"You start to have a pressure cooker of flights growing faster than there is space available to accommodate them," said Will Horton, an analyst at CAPA The Center for Aviation. "Until there is reform of air traffic, growth will be stunted."
In the U.S. and many other countries, most airspace is given over to civilian traffic while military zones are typically small and in remote areas far from busy airports.
In China, planes are routinely delayed when the military shuts down civilian airspace at short notice for air drills. Delays also happen when large thunderstorms sweep in, as is common in summer. Pilots say they're routinely denied permission to detour around storms into restricted military areas in order to avoid severe turbulence. So planes typically sit on the ground waiting for clearance.
"Those delays build up and it cascades through the rest of the system, so by the evening, the system is clogged," said Todd Siena, partner at Shanghai-based consultancy Avia-Tek.
Sometimes, no reasons are given for are delays.
Pat Morris, a former pilot for Asian carrier Dragonair, said on one flight from Hong Kong to Beijing, air traffic control demanded the plane go into a holding pattern for an indefinite period while it was still two hours away from its destination.
After the crew replied by saying the plane wouldn't have enough fuel to land in Beijing, controllers told them to pick an alternate airport for a landing.
"We queried the reason for this request and we were told, 'weather at Beijing.' However no adverse weather was reported or encountered," he said. They managed to "negotiate" so that they could continue on to Beijing "without much delay," he said.
The second problem is air traffic control that some industry experts say has become unduly cautious after Chinese regulators were shocked into focusing on safety after a string of fatal accidents at domestic Chinese carriers in the 1990s.
Pilots complain about longer separation distances, with planes being kept as much as 10 miles (16 kilometres) apart on landings at airports, compared to three miles (five kilometres) in other countries. They're also required to stay 2,000 feet (610 metres) apart vertically, twice the distance elsewhere.
On landing, Chinese controllers require pilots to descend to certain levels and airspeeds while in other countries, pilots can make a continuous descent to the airport.
"It's almost like a staircase. And as you go each step further, then you have to slow down," said Christopher Jackson, a director at Shanghai-based aviation investment firm Genesis. "That means more time in the air. When you're controlling the aircraft in that manner, it's easier for them to get backed up."
Authorities have tried to get around the problem with new measures, including a recent decision allowing planes to take off regardless of conditions at their destinations. They're also building dozens of new airports, including a new one in Beijing slated to open in 2018 that would help ease some of the load at the city's existing international airport, the world's second busiest with 82 million passengers a year.
But experts say such measures are stopgaps. What's needed is deep-rooted reform, though there's little sign that the People's Liberation Army is willing to loosen its grip on airspace.
A new airport is "like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound," said Jackson, adding that pace of reform is up to President Xi Jinping, who is the ultimate head of the military and the aviation regulator.
"I think Chinese air travellers are going to be stuck with delays until President Xi decides that he wants to do something about it," Jackson said.
If the delays aren't resolved, more people could opt to travel on the high-speed trains, an increasingly viable competitor. Authorities plan to double the country's high-speed rail network to 18,000 kilometres (11,120 miles) by 2015.
"While a flight from Beijing to Shanghai may be faster than the train, a delay could make the air journey longer and sway a preference to trains," which are more convenient because they offer wireless Internet, said Horton.
Chen, the business traveller, said that after her nightmare journey, "I'll try to take high-speed trains as much as I can, to avoid taking planes."
She said her fellow passengers got angry when they learned about the extended delay to their late evening flight from Hohhot, the capital of the Inner Mongolia region. They yelled at staff and threw plastic drink bottles at a senior manager. Chen complained no helped her find a hotel.
"No one took care of us. No food, no drink," she said. She got a refund and flew on another airline instead of trying to get compensation. "I was just so desperate" to get home, she said.
Researcher Fu Ting in Shanghai contributed to this report.
Follow Kelvin Chan at twitter.com/chanman