China’s Shoddy State-Run Airlines Leave Grounded Passengers Flying Into a Rage

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Stranded travelers argue with police and airline personnel at an airport in Kunming, China, on Jan. 4, 2013

It’s the perennial headache for airlines anywhere — quickly herding hundreds of passengers onboard, getting them out of the aisles, into their safety belts and making sure that the plane takes off for its destination on time. But China’s airlines’ shocking record in this regard has led to a new worry — getting the passengers off the plane again once they land. In the northern Chinese city of Dalian on July 28, passengers refused to disembark from two separate planes that had landed hours behind schedule ostensibly because of bad weather. The travelers refused to budge unless they were given compensation for the delay, and police were eventually called to remove them.

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The Dalian sit-in is just the latest in a long line of disputes between passengers and airlines in China. The country’s state-run carriers, hardly models of efficiency, have racked up a notoriously poor flight record. According to data provider FlightStats, all of the world’s 10 worst airlines for timekeeping in June were Chinese. FlightStats also notes that China’s airports — also operated by the state and bereft of customer-friendly facilities like decent restaurants or shopping — are prime offenders for tardiness. A paltry 18% of flights from Beijing’s Capital International Airport took off on time this June — the worst record of any major airport anywhere in the world. And Beijing is far from China’s only laggard. No. 2 on the FlightStats’ global offenders list? Shanghai.

With the delays piling up and airlines struggling to deal with the consequences, irate travelers are turning aggressive and protests are not uncommon. Angry passengers have in recent weeks reportedly smashed up check-in desks in Shanghai, stormed a runway in Nanchang and beaten a ground worker so badly she was left with concussion in Wenzhou. According to Chinese media reports, some airports have simply stopped announcing delays over the PA system to avoid antagonizing delayed travelers.

A mismanagement epidemic seems to blight China’s mammoth domestic airline industry — boasting 296 million internal passengers in 2012, an 8.8% rise from the previous year — and those involved simply point fingers at each other. Airline operators cite overly stringent air-traffic-control restrictions. Air-traffic controllers point to unpredictable weather patterns in heavily trafficked areas. And travelers “in the know” blame the country’s air force, which, so the rumor goes, keeps all the good airspace to itself and restricts the number of planes allowed in the air. The nation’s aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), has crunched its own numbers — and apportioned blame accordingly. According to CAAC figures, military control of airspace was responsible for just 7% of delays last year, bad weather a further 21% and air-traffic controls for 26% of holdups. The overwhelming reason for delays, the CAAC claimed, is simple — poor management by airline operators. The CAAC says 42% of delays could be attributed to “the management and operation of air carriers.”

China has 182 commercial airports and an airline industry dominated by state-run behemoths; the three largest airlines — Air China, China Southern Airlines and China Eastern Airlines — control 80% of the market between them. Fully privately owned airlines, by contrast, have just 5%. But, like state giants in other sectors of China’s economy, that market dominance is not translating into operational efficiency and strong bottom line performance. In fact, the three airlines depend on government handouts for survival — receiving a combined $650 million in state subsidies during 2012.

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The result, say passengers, is that airline staff are less focused on customer care and more focused on not rocking the boat. “The airlines don’t care about passengers,” Vincent Ni, a media worker in Beijing, tells TIME. Ni recently spent nine hours in Beijing airport waiting to board a flight to Hong Kong. “They don’t care if the passengers have to waste a day or even two days sitting in the airport,” he sys. This experience is far from exceptional. One vacationer returning to Beijing from the south of the country told TIME recently that her flight was delayed several hours before her eventual departure and even then diverted to another airport 150 miles from the capital. Landing in the middle of the night in an unfamiliar part of the country, passengers were led to the arrivals area where they were advised by the airline to simply find their own way home. The situation has deteriorated to the point that even the CAAC has made clear to China’s carriers that they need to step up their act or be, literally, grounded.

In January, the regulatory body hosted a videoconference during which CAAC head Li Jiaxiang reportedly told airlines they needed to take more responsibility for delays and provide better care for stranded passengers. However, according to Chinese media reports, the reprimands from the conference were never implemented as airlines were too busy handling near riots caused by summer delays. Last week Li went a step further, threatening to revoke airlines’ rights to fly certain routes in the event of repeated delays. He has also told local media that authorities would consider allowing private airlines access some of the more lucrative routes — a clear warning to the state-owned carriers that they needed to up their game. These have long resisted the encroachment of the private airlines on cash-cow routes like the Beijing-Shanghai corridor, knowing that the competitors would offer lower fees to win business. If anyone is best placed to understand the scale of current problems, it’s Li. Until 2008, he was the chairman of China’s largest state-owned airline, Air China.

But observers say that mere threats alone are not enough to solve China’s airline crisis. “The CAAC needs to strengthen the internal management at the airlines” says Li Xiaojin, a professor at the College of Economics and Management at the Civil Aviation University of China. “They can’t just talk about how many people or how much cargo they carry each year to prove how good they are — it’s quality not quantity that really counts.” Easy to say, but not so easy to implement — not least because the senior-management teams at all of China’s state-run airlines are reshuffled every few years, in keeping with the preference of China’s communist leaders. So any lessons learned now may be lost again within a few short months.

One consultant to the state-run airlines, who has asked to remain anonymous, tells TIME that the constant changes drive complacency. “Even the mid-level managers changed every two years, so you are constantly dealing with fresh starters,” she says. “So there was always a problem with people not caring about their jobs.” Such systemic problems mean little respite is on the radar for China’s long-suffering air passengers, and such tepid excuses will not fly for very much longer.

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