- - Thursday, August 15, 2013

In a rare moment of candor, the official China Daily newspaper disclosed that China’s notorious commercial airline delays are caused mainly by a near monopoly on airspace by the military’s air force.

While 85 percent of U.S. airspace is open to civilian aviation, only about 20 percent of Chinese airspace can be used for civilian flights. The rest is reserved for military aircraft.

China’s international airports rank near the bottom in industry surveys of punctuality.

Beijing Capital International Airport is China’s largest and the world’s second-busiest after Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The industry journal Flight Stats ranks it last out of 35 major airports for its delays and cancellations, the Economic Times reported Aug. 7. Shanghai Pudong International Airport, China’s second-largest, ranks second from the bottom.

About 82 percent of all flights leaving Beijing are delayed, and about 71 percent leaving Shanghai are behind schedule.

Flight delays and cancellations have increasingly enraged passengers, who have become violent at some airports. Protests and attacks on airport personnel are so common that they do not become news in cities across the country.

One obvious solution: Ease restrictions on airspace monopolized by the air force and transfer a large portion of control to civilian aviation.

In most Western nations, the military seeks to limit its use of airspace to remote and sparsely populated areas. But China’s military controls most airspace above densely populated regions, as well as the western desert zones and Tibet.

In Europe especially, airspace designated for military use is frequently opened for civil aviation during busy travel seasons. But China’s military maintains exclusive control of its airspace at all times. Such exclusiveness has forced many domestic flights to fly long detour routes.

In November, when President Xi Jinping became supreme leader, many in China’s civil aviation industry hoped he would alter the military’s monopoly on airspace.

That change is unlikely to occur. Mr. Xi is expected to be in power for another decade, and he has demonstrated strong support for the military.

A few weeks after his ascendance to supreme leader, an incident illustrated that the air force’s monopoly is unshakable and that Mr. Xi is willing to keep it that way, as Inside China reported Jan. 31.

The nation’s busiest travel season is the Chinese New Year, when the world’s largest annual human migration occurs and about 1 billion commercial transportation seats are needed to carry passengers before and after the Feb. 10 holiday. Crowds jam highways, railways and airlines.

To ease this year’s congestion, China Central Television announced Jan. 27 that air force flight control administrators had relented to allow 122 military air routes to be used temporarily for 20,000 civilian airlines’ flights during the holiday season.

However, the news enraged the army’s high commanders, led by the newly anointed Mr. Xi. Hours later, state-run Xinhua News Agency announced there would be no easing of military restrictions on airspace under any circumstances.

“If the [Chinese] air force transferred just 10 percent of the airspace under its control to civil airlines, an extra [$32.6 billion] will be generated in GDP,” Li Xiaojin, a professor at the Civil Aviation University of China, was quoted as saying by China Daily.

“We are working hard and the military is also trying to improve the management of airspace. But it could take some time to achieve some improvement,” Shi Boli, chief of air regulation at the official Civic Aviation Administration of China, told Bloomberg news service in May.

Miles Yu’s column appears Fridays. He can be reached at [email protected] and @yu_miles.

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