Late again.

Photographer: WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

Flight Delayed in China? Blame the Military

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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On Thursday morning, a huge military parade will roll through the heart of Beijing to commemorate the end of World War II, or -- as the Chinese are now putting it -- "Victory of the Chinese People's Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War."

Yet despite the bold display of weaponry and confidence, the authorities are taking no chances that the festivities will be disrupted. In recent days, for example, falcons and macaques have been deployed to chase off birds that might interfere with military flybys. But the most drastic and economically disruptive measure will come Thursday morning, when Beijing Capital International Airport -- the world's second busiest -- will be closed from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., disrupting hundreds of flights from China and around the world at significant cost.

On its own, the closing is little more than a short-term, extravagant nuisance to Chinese -- and global -- aviation. But flight delays caused by the prerogatives of China's military aren't anything new in China, and over the last several years they have significantly impeded the growth and development of China's aviation sector. In July 2014, for example, hundreds of flights in and out of Shanghai were canceled without warning to make way for military exercises that lasted two weeks. The military was unapologetic -- national security was at stake, after all -- and the civil aviation authorities were embarrassed, unable to do anything to fix a situation that shouldn't have been happening in one of the world's fastest-growing and most important aviation markets.

The crucial issue is airspace and the Chinese military's jealous control of it. According to a December 2014 staff report from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 80 percent of China's national airspace is devoted to military uses, with much of it overlapping or affecting prime commercial aviation corridors, as illustrated by last summer's Shanghai delays. By contrast, the U.S. military controls 20 percent of U.S. airspace, mostly over remote or ocean areas.

In theory, civil aviation's potential as a growth engine in China's sputtering economy should spur the Chinese military to ease its stranglehold. In 2013, China's State Council, its highest legislative body, issued a comprehensive aviation and aerospace development plan, with growth in mind, and since then has repeatedly pressed the case for investment. The results have been spectacular. In 2014, for example, the number of Chinese air passengers reached 392 million, up 10.7 percent from 2013. The International Air Transport Association predicts that China will surpass the U.S. to become the world's biggest civil aviation market by 2034.

Unfortunately, China's military is just as capricious -- and jealous -- as ever. A July 2014 article in Chinese state media quoted a Chinese military commander complaining that city dwellers who raise birds and play with model airplanes are disturbing military morale and exercises.

This dysfunction -- and the Chinese government's unwillingness or inability to resolve it -- doesn't just harm the development of China's economy but ultimately circles back on China's frustrated airline passengers. Last month, China's Civil Aviation Administration reported that one-third of all mainland flights failed to take off on time in 2014, the fourth consecutive year of increase. In March, FlightStats, a U.S.-based air travel information service, reported that of the world's 61 largest airports, the seven worst for on-time departures were Chinese, including Beijing Capital. Flights leaving Shanghai's Pudong Airport -- the busiest international airport in China -- managed on-time departures only 37.26 percent of the time. Though there aren't any statistics on what these delays cost Chinese passengers, airlines and the overall Chinese economy, a comprehensive study of U.S. flight delays in 2007 pegged the cost to the U.S. economy at $32.9 billion -- half of which was borne by passengers.

Of course, not every Chinese flight delay can be attributed to the military. Rapid growth in the aviation sector means that air traffic control and other infrastructure is overburdened and in need of upgrades. In Beijing, a five-year project to build a new airport was approved recently. But barring additional airspace, the project might serve only to exacerbate an already bad situation.

Unfortunately for Chinese fliers, the outlook for new airspace isn't good. A long-desired law that would streamline regulation of civil and military aviation has been hung up in China's opaque legislative process for years, with the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission speculating that the cause is intransigence by the Chinese military. Meanwhile, China's leaders either lack the power to push the issue along or are sympathetic to the idea that the military's prerogatives (and parades) should trump China's search for growth. Either way, China's fliers, and its economy, lose.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net