'The service sucks': Chinese airlines under fire

Simon Meng's flight to Harbin, China, was supposed to take about five hours. Instead, he had a two-day delay, arguments with airline staff, a night-time wait in the rain, a trip to the hospital, and a dispute with police.

About 30 other passengers on the Shenzhen Airlines flight also forced their way onto a Shanghai Pudong International Airport taxiway after being stranded for about 15 hours. That April 11 demonstration was followed by a similar incident two days later as Chinese travellers begin to get fed up with delays affecting at least one in four flights.

"The service across the whole aviation industry sucks," said Meng, 28, who runs a consultancy in Harbin, northern China, and flies every couple of weeks. "I totally understand why passengers protested." Shenzhen Air declined to comment.

Chinese airlines are struggling to stick with schedules as they contend with military restrictions on airspace, bad weather and procedures that haven't kept pace with demand in the world's fastest growing aviation market. That's hampering operations even as carriers spend $US600 billion ($A578 billion) on new planes through 2030, according to aircraft manufacturer Boeing.

"Passengers simply can't avoid delays," said Li Lei, a Beijing-based analyst at China Securities "It's an industrywide issue."

Flight delays

According to Civil Aviation Administration of China's statistics, 23.5 per cent of flights were delayed last year. That only measures when the plane door closed, not when the aircraft took off. The regulator has begun tracking takeoff times this year. By comparison, 85 per cent of US flights arrived on time last year, according to Department of Transportation statistics.

"Airlines are the last to want delays because the costs are very high," said Zhang Wu'an, a spokesman for Spring Airline, China's largest low-cost carrier. "But, apart from looking after passengers better, there's not much we can do."

Zhang was on a plane that had been waiting to take off for more than two hours in Guangzhou because of thunderstorms when interviewed. Delays cost about 1000 yuan a minute, China Eastern Airlines chairman Liu Shaoyong told state-run Xinhua News Agency last month.

About 42 per cent of airspace in eastern China is closed to commercial flights and reserved for the air force, the official China News Services reported last year, citing a military study. That region includes Beijing and Shanghai, the country's most important cities.

Off, on, off

Meng's about 3500 kilometre trip from Shenzhen to Harbin via Nanjing was also affected by storms, which caused the Shenzhen Air flight to divert to Shanghai, touching down at about 8 pm. The passengers got off the plane, waited two hours, then re-boarded before waiting in their seats for another couple of hours.

The passengers got off again at around midnight, as the crew didn't know when the plane would be cleared for takeoff, Meng said. They walked to the terminal, discovered it was locked and waited in the rain for about half an hour before someone opened it. The police arrived soon afterwards, while Meng took his wife to a hospital for checks as she felt unwell, he said.

The couple returned to the airport at about 5am at which point the airline offered them a hotel room. They also decided to postpone the next leg of their trip until the following day. Other passengers were told they could fly at 11am. That was subsequent delayed, prompting the taxiway incursion, according to state-run media.

Compensation, punishment

Shenzhen Air, a unit of Air China, gave the passengers 1000 yuan ($A152) in compensation and said the disruptions were caused by thunderstorms, according to the report. The passengers who entered the taxiway were "punished," airport police said on its official microblog, without elaborating.

Two days later, passengers on a Hainan Airlines flight entered the tarmac at Guangzhou Baiyun Airport after heavy rains disrupted flights, said Dong Jun, a spokesman for the carrier. The airline paid 500 yuan in compensation to travellers on the flight, which eventually took off almost seven hours late, she said.

The regulator has told carriers to improve services for delayed passengers, Xinhua said, without elaboration. Calls to its Beijing head office went unanswered.

Hainan Air has asked staff to communicate with passengers better and it will provide meals and accommodation if necessary, Dong said. At Beijing Airport, the world's second-busiest for passengers, the police are also working with airlines to improve security following delays, said Wang Min, a spokesman for Beijing Capital International Airport Public Security Sub- Bureau.

"The police needs to do a better job of controlling passengers," said Liu Jieyin, executive vice president at closely-held Okay Airways. "Some of the reasons for delays such as bad weather and airspace control are not airlines' fault."