A new chapter in China’s long and inglorious history of airport delays is being written in Shanghai, but the details of how it started and when it will end are as opaque as the banks of smog that hover over the nation’s busiest runways. Together Shanghai’s two main airports delayed or cancelled dozens of flights on Tuesday after doing the same with hundreds of flights on Monday, leaving crowds of travelers either sitting idly in waiting halls or scrambling to the train station. The reason, according to signs posted at the airports and messages disseminated online: an unspecified “other user” of the airspace conducting exercises in the area.
China’s airports are the worst in the world in getting flights off on time, according to flight tracking organization FlightStats, a phenomenon that can lead to passenger meltdowns of harrowing proportion. Authorities and airlines blame all manner of factors, from bad weather to bad communication with air-traffic control. But among the biggest factors, according to aviation experts, is China’s military, which dominates all but a fraction of the country’s airspace. Contacted by China Real Time on Tuesday, the Civil Aviation Administration of China confirmed that another user was indeed responsible for the delays, but declined to say who it might be.
“We don’t have any other information to release at this moment,” an official with the CAAC news office said. “We’ve asked that airlines do a proper job in taking care of passengers affected by the delays.”
Several authoritative information outlets, including the verified social media accounts of the Beijing police and state broadcaster China Central Television, published a notice saying the delays would last until August 15 and affect multiple airports across eastern China, including in the former capital of Nanjing and the beach town of Qingdao.
“Flight passengers bring along snacks and water!” warned the notice, which said airlines had been asked to reduce flights in and out of those cities by 25% over the period.
Yet according to CAAC the notice was “not official,” and indeed, both the Beijing police and CCTV later took it down. A similar lack of information paved the way for rumor-mongering in the wake of another mass flight cancellation in Shanghai on July 14, with some Internet users speculating that airspace had been shut down because a high-level government official was trying to flee the country.
Globally, Shanghai Pudong ranks 21st and Hongqiao ranks 36th in terms of passenger traffic, according to Airports Council International, an aviation industry association. Together, the two airports handled close to 83 million passengers in 2013 — more than London’s Heathrow and Chicago’s O’Hare. Between the two airports, 199 flights were cancelled and another 118 were delayed two hours or more on Monday, according to the state-run China Youth Daily. Another 61 were either delayed or cancelled on Tuesday, the Shanghai airport authority said on an official social media feed.