Ian Johnson

In Southern Beijing, China is building the prestigious Beijing Daxing International Airport, due to open next September and serving up to 72 million passengers annually by 2025. But it is not only glamor being constructed, writes Beijing-based author Ian Johnson for the New York Times. If the military would not tightly control the Chinese airspace, the airport would not be needed to start with.

Ian Johnson:

With roughly 70 percent of airspace controlled by the military (versus 20 percent in the United States), commercial aircraft flying in China are limited to narrow tunnels in the sky. This restricts options for departure and arrival routing, cutting the number of takeoffs and landings that airports can handle.

Beijing Capital, for example, was the world’s second-busiest airport based on passenger volume in 2017, but it ranked fifth based on takeoffs and landings, nearly a third fewer than the world leader, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

The lack of airspace is also a key reason delays are so common in China. Last year, flight delays increased 50 percent, with only 71 percent of flights taking off on time, according to government statistics. That’s helped push Chinese airlines to the bottom of punctuality rankings, with one study ranking three Chinese airlines as the worst among 20 large-scale carriers.

Although aviation authorities blame the weather for half of the delays, Mr. Guo of Q&A Consulting said the underlying cause was the military-induced lack of airspace.

When a corridor is blocked by a thunderstorm, for example, Chinese flight controllers often cannot reroute an airplane, because it would have to enter military airspace. That causes planes to sit on the ground or fly holding patterns when in other countries they could land or take off.

“The congestion takes place in the sky because the military only allows for a certain number of tunnels,” Mr. Guo said. “If that doesn’t change, the ground infrastructure needs to be expanded.”

The new airport will help by initially opening four, then up to eight, new runways in the suburb of Daxing, 41 miles southwest of Beijing Capital. The number of air corridors available for civilian use stays the same, but the new runways will provide airlines with more ways to gain access to this limited airspace, allowing the Beijing area to facilitate more flights.

More at the New York Times.

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