Plane Talk: What's gone right for Chinese aviation, and what's still wrong
“I've found some cheap flights to Brisbane with Air China but I assume they're best avoided?” So asked reader Shari Rendle, who sought advice about travelling to the Queensland capital in the spring.
Best not avoided, I recommended. Ms Rendle might not enjoy quite the inflight cuisine of Singapore Airlines, the wines of Qantas or the seatback entertainment of Emirates, but she will be flown safely to the other side of the world and back on a Star Alliance airline for an absurdly low fare.
According to the World Bank, airline passenger numbers in the People’s Republic increased nine-fold between 1995 and 2015 – mainly thanks to a couple of enlightened decisions from the leadership in Beijing.
When first I flew within China in 1982, the airports were shabby and makeshift, but many of the jet planes were robust and safe. At the time, the Soviet Union insisted only Ilyushins, Tupolevs and Yaks (the Moscow-built aircraft, not the Himalayan beasts of burden) qualified for the Aeroflot fleet. But the People’s Republic looked beyond the Great Wall for planes.
Starting in the Sixties with some British Tridents (the three-engined passengers planes, not the nuclear deterrent), China has hungrily bought Western aircraft. Remarkably, says aviation safety expert Adrian Young, this decision helped to reduce risk.
After the orders were placed, he explains, “Safety initiatives followed, because the manufacturers did not want their aeroplanes being brought into the news if their products crashed there.”
Initially the Tridents and Boeings flew under the catchy brand CAAC, standing for “Civil Aviation Administration of China”. But 30 years ago, China made a great leap forward. In 1988, the state airline was divided up around key hubs: Beijing (Air China), Shanghai (China Eastern) and Guangzhou (China Southern). Even though they remain ultimately publicly owned, the internal competition spurred the spread of safe and affordable air travel across the People’s Republic.
Today, many of China’s airports are gleaming, space-age structures that put cramped and awkward 20th-century European or US terminals to shame. Business travellers can choose from three or four flights an hour each way between Beijing and Shanghai. Even on a niche route such as Xian to Guilin there are six daily departures.
Endearingly, many of the unpredictabilities of my first foray into China in 1982 still prevail. Will there be a hot snack? Will it be edible? What proportion of passengers will never have flown before, and what coercion tactics will be deployed by the cabin crew to ensure the first-timers comply with safety rules?
On the subject of safety, Mr Young, who analyses risk for the To70 consultancy, sounds a note of caution about the rapid expansion of flying: “Civil and military airspace in China is not wholly integrated. Whilst there is segregation in the West, air-traffic control usually knows what everyone is doing in a particular sector. That doesn’t always seem to be the case in China.”
Tony Wheeler, the Lonely Planet co-founder who has probably flown more than anyone who isn’t actually a pilot or cabin crew, concurs. “Military air-traffic control in China requires much greater separation distances than, for example, European or US airspace.” As a result, flight crew heading to or over China are sharply focused on their allotted slot times. He relates a story of a business passenger who realised, after the doors were shut, that he’d left his phone in the executive lounge.
”He insisted he wasn’t sitting down until it was found. The crew explained that if they went looking for it they were going to miss their slot over China and that could mean a delay of hours.
“Eventually the captain was summoned and explained to him again what would happen if they missed their China slot. He still refused to sit down. ‘OK,’ the captain said. ‘I am going to count to 10 and you are going to sit down or we are going to miss our slot. You and your baggage will be off-loaded and you will not be going on this flight.’ He sat down.”
With a ferociously low cost base, Chinese carriers can undercut foreign airlines. Ms Rendle’s Queensland connection is an outstanding example: just £410 will take her from Heathrow to Brisbane on 2 May and back a week later, for example. That’s more than 20,000 miles of travel for seven days’ work at the UK National Minimum Wage.
It’s not the fastest journey, taking around 31 hours including nine hours in the Chinese capital both ways. But thanks to the 144-hour transit no-visa concession there’s no need to stay in the airport. On the way out, transit passengers can head into town for dinner, and on the way back explore the Forbidden City.
Besides a bargain, the Chinese connection brings you a glimpse or two behind the bamboo curtain at the powerhouse for the 21st-century world.