Air travel in China is by and large not much different from travel in the US. Lines are long, people are stressed and flights are delayed. However, there are some fundamental differences that keep flying China exciting, scary and an adventure.
Every single flight that my colleagues or I traveled on in China this summer was delayed. Since China hasn’t passed any form of passenger rights and the common practice in China is to load the passengers and wait for permission to push back. This means that passengers will often sit on the airplane for two hours before it’ll leave from the gate.
One example: On my flight from Shanghai to Shenzhen, I was scheduled to depart at 9 pm. The plane didn’t arrive until 10. We boarded and then sat at the gate until 11:30.
(Cathay at the Gate – this is in HK, so, not much of a ground wait)
Much of this problem stems from the way the airspace is managed in China.
In the United States, the airspace is controlled and owned by the federal government. The FAA is the governing authority and it designates the airways roads and the areas where civilian traffic can fly. Military traffic can join into the civilian airspace but it must follow the same rules as the civil pilots. The military has special restricted areas where they are free to train and not interfere with the civil traffic.
In China it is wholly different story. The military owns and runs the airspace and civilian traffic is reluctantly tolerated. The result is that the military will randomly close airspace, interfere with spacing, and generally cause trouble for civil traffic whenever it wants.
(Flying in Circles)
Long ground waits and absurd flight paths are common. For example, look at the flight path above, nothing like two mid-flight holding patterns. Coming into Beijing, we started our decent, rather than a gradual decent to the airport. We decended to 10,000 feet about 90 miles south of the airport and cruised at that altitude for about 30 minutes to get the airport.
I heard many stories from the foreign pilots this summer. The general takeaway is that Chinese pilots are poorly trained and inexperienced. In the US, this is the typical training route for a first officer includes: 250 hrs to commercial, 500 – 1000 hrs as an instructor. That time can last anywhere from 3 – 6 years. In China, pilots are shipped to a US training facility for high speed training. They do their initial 250 hours within a year and return to be first officers. That is right, the typical first officer in China has less time than I do.
The result is that the foreign captains need to be able to fly the plane without any help from the First Officer. During the checkride, the captains are specially tested on their ability to manage the whole cockpit.
The anecdotes I heard in China included – first officers who froze up in a crisis, read the newspaper while flying, and smoked in the cockpit.
This is not to say that all pilots in China are bad. Indeed, in recent years, they have had a relatively safe system. However, it should be noted that the pilots in the Yichun plane crash last month that killed 42 people were both Chinese.
And, of course, the recent new story that over 200 pilots were found by the Chinese FAA (CAAC) to have faked their resumes and flying histories in China, then allowed to return to the cockpit does not instill much confidence in the industry. All of these pilots were ex-Chinese Airforce pilots.
Fortunately, there are some very talented and dedicated foreign pilots in the private airlines.
There are some awesome features of travel in China that you don’t see in US. Chinese airlines are like the US airlines were pre-deregulation. The fares are higher, but the so is the service. Pretty much every flight has a hot meal. My 2 hour flight from Shanghai to Shenzhen had a noodle dish on par with any meal I’ve had on a transpacific flight. The level of service is high and the stewardesses are picked from a non-EEOC regime which means they are short and cute.
They also have some interesting in-flight gimmicks. On one flight, midway through the service, the stewardesses held a charity auction. The passengers bid on a free flight on the airline and the money went to charity.
(Stewardess working reception at SZA Headquarters)
While fares are average for similar US routes, they are expensive for the Chinese. One upside is that you can meet some interesting people. On one flight, my seat mate was the headcoach for the Chinese/HK olympic bicycling team.
One final thing, I spent a few days at the crew airport next to the Beijing airport. One morning, I wandered off near the airport. I was able to get right up to the approach lights and get some awesome videos. I’ve posted them all on youtube. Http://www.youtube.com/dube85
But, check out this house. It is literally built against the airport fence. Can you imagine living in a house that has jest roaring over it every 5 minutes at 200 feet? At least they have satellite tv.
For some more history about the development of international air travel into China, check out this book. It talks all about Pam Am’s first flight into China during the war and cultural revolution.