How does unrestricted take-off help China’s aviation woes?

Opinion piece by Sarena Regazzoni, Director of Corporate Communications and occasional  globetrotter

Predictability is sometimes not a good thing

When traveling in China, there is one thing you can count on…being delayed. The story of China’s flight delays is almost stranger than fiction. At least, it seems that way to me. I am just a regular traveler seeking to get from point A to point B safely, and hopefully, on time.

Delays are always annoying, but delays in China are epic occurrences that have launched protests, air rage, prayer and training in marshal arts for flight staff.

In the wake of the international notice taken recently of the woefully challenged performance at Chinese airports in comparison to their worldwide counterparts, the Civil Aviation Administration of China  has invoked the policy of “unrestricted take-off” at eight major Chinese airports in order to improve departure performance .

Essentially planes are encouraged to take off once all the passengers have boarded the plane regardless of availability for landing at their destination.

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Cosmetic solution?

This policy  is confusing to me in how it will help in any substantive way, and it seems to be cosmetic at best. I say this because, recently I was on a delayed flight from Denver bound for Washington DC and the pilot addressed this very topic. This was a day where the local weather was good, and there were no mechanical issues with the plane. The pilot spoke via the PA system to explain the reason for the delay to a plane full of anxious travelers. Unfortunately, there were thunderstorms that day in the DC area that was delaying air traffic. We were told that in order to maintain safety, not waste fuel, or cause a diversion,  as well as to be kind to the environment, air-traffic control prefers to keep the plane waiting on the ground and delay departure instead of circling in a holding pattern up in the air.

How does unrestricted take-off work?

How does letting planes take off once they are  loaded, without concern for where it can actually land,  improve anything? Will the plane not just have its landing delayed? If an un-restricted take-off policy was all that it took to resolve China’s air traffic performance issues, wouldn’t they have adopted  this solution long before?

In the past six months, Beijing has only seen an on-time performance percentage over 30% once. Unfortunately, this new policy will likely cause many unintended consequences such as: delayed arrivals, increased fuel costs for airlines, increased pollution, increased worry by passengers wondering why they are circling an airport, and potentially increased exposure to flight accidents. Additionally, this does not address the true challenges plaguing China’s air travel system such as insufficient airspace for increased traffic and ineffective management; two reasons recently cited for the excessive delays.

Thus far, eight airports have deployed the unrestricted take off policy implemented on July 18th: Beijing Capital, Shanghai Hongqiao, Shanghai Pudong, Guangzhou Baiyun, Shenzhen Baoan, Chengdu Shuangliu, Xian Xianyang and Kunming Changshui airports. The cumulative on-time performance for these eight airports was 28.57% (see 2013 June Chinese AirportDeparturePerformance ). For the first full week under the new unrestricted take-off policy, July 18th through July 25th the cumulative on-time performance for the group of eight was 24.17% (see 2013 July 18 – 25 Chinese Airport Departure Performance by Date).

Update: Performance was at 25.17% at the eight Chinese airports under the unrestricted take-off policy during the period from July 18th through July 31. See updated performance by date data (2013 July 18 – 31 Chinese Airport Departure Performance by Date).

To be clear, there are many events such as weather,  mechanical delays,  air traffic control issues, poor visibility, and other factors that could affect the overall on-time performance at any given airport. FlightStats data does not attribute causality to the performance reports, so this is just one data point early in the process, and is not indicative of the overall effectiveness of the policy. Still, from this traveler’s point of view, this solution seems like a quick-fix attempt that will leave China’s travelers wanting a better solution.