Military Exercises Continue to Snarl Flights in China

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Nearly all afternoon flights into China’s busiest airports were cancelled today because of “congestion in the airspace,” which is code for military exercises. Frequent flyers in China are made of stronger stuff.

Fighter jets outrank civilian planes so Chinese generals get to curb commercial aviation for a three-week period through mid-August.

Chinese aviation authorities, who are having their chain pulled by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), asked airlines to reduce flight traffic by as much as 75 percent at Shanghai’s two airports on Tuesday, calling it a “red alert,” the most severe restriction.

Between the two airports, 135 departure and arrival flights were canceled and an additional 428 were delayed as of Tuesday afternoon, according to the Wall Street Journal. Crowds of travelers were left either sitting in waiting halls or running to the train station.

The same happened at Zhengzhou Airport (CGO). And in at least eight major cities in China’s Shandong and Jiangsu provinces no flights landed, according to the WSJ. Flights at a dozen airports in Jiangxi and Zhejiang provinces were banned from taking off.

Some aviation experts suggest the PLA has expanded the no-fly zones around military drills in response to the shooting down of MH17. But that’s doubtful.

The reality is flight reductions are part of a three-week curb on flights through mid-August because of military drills. It’s already resulted in capacity reduction of as much as 25 percent at a dozen Chinese airports, airline officials said.

In a statement a few days ago, the ministry of defense said the People’s Liberation Army would begin a series of drills in the southeast of the country starting Tuesday.

But they claim they’ll “try to minimize the impact of the drills on civilian commercial aircraft and passengers,” a spokesperson for China’s ministry of defense told The Financial Times.

Air travel in China is a red-hot commodity. Passenger traffic so far this year is up 12 percent. Last year it increased by 11 percent. Yet only 20 percent of available airspace is allotted to civil aviation. The rest is tightly controlled by the military.

By contrast, the U.S. has few restrictions except over major metropolitan areas.

Official China news agencies say military and civil aviation management authorities have taken measures to minimize the exercise’s impact on civilian flights by opening temporary air routes, allocating protection airspace and setting down alternative deviation plans.

But in the long run, China will probably change.

“Our customers are all changing or cancelling their tickets, not just for the eastern China area but across the whole country,” Wu Zongjun, sales director for Beijing Baosheng Aviation Service told the WSJ.

The Tarmac’s View:  The military will eventually lose this dispute with commercial aviation. Money wins in the new-moneyed China. Three weeks of military drills in prime travel season means huge revenue losses.

[Photo: iStock]

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