China: Too Many Planes, Too Many Airports

Air traffic over the Pearl River Delta has been described as a “mess”, with congestion causing frequent delays and detours. On the ground, meanwhile, airports are multiplying uncontrollably in spite of growing competition from high-speed rail and limited demand on many routes. From the LA Times:

Giovanni Bisignani, chief executive of the International Air Transport Association, said air traffic control over the congested region is a “mess” that needs to be fixed. He said flight delays are still at unacceptable levels despite some improvements.

The region’s steadily growing air traffic has resulted in very crowded airspace, and planes often have to take detours or adjust their altitudes to avoid collisions, resulting in delays.

In 2009, about 2,000 flights departing Hong Kong were delayed. The figure was roughly the same in 2007 and 2008. The problem is more acute for flights heading to mainland China, with more than 1,600 delayed from January to June last year.

The situation is compounded because the military controls China’s airspace, Bisignani said.

The Financial Times’ beyondbrics blog reports plans to substantially increase the number of airports in the country over the next five years:

Around three quarters of China’s 175 gleaming airports are losing money, many are barely used and some don’t have any flights at all.

Beijing’s solution to this problem? Accelerate the building spree with a plan to add 45 new commercial airports over the next five years, bringing the total across the country to more than 220 by 2015 ….

In private, Chinese officials outside the aviation sector say the proliferation of airports across the country is a serious concern but that the central government has trouble saying no to local officials who make the long-term economic case for improved aviation infrastructure.

Of course, the enormous opportunities for graft and skimming off the top are great incentives for the local officials to propose the projects in first place.

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