Which country has the worst airport delays in the world?

Hint: It's not Chicago O'Hare or Atlanta in the US.

Eugene Hoshiko/AP/File
Passengers queue up for a security check at Pudong International Airport in Shanghai, China, Jan. 20, 2012. China's airlines and airports continue to have the worst flight delays in the world.

Chinese airline passengers, who have a reputation for losing it in dramatic fashion, can now feel vindicated. Beijing’s airport has the worst punctuality record in the world. And Shanghai is close behind.

Only 18 percent of flights took off from Beijing’s Capital Airport on time in June, according to a just-released survey of the world’s 35 busiest airports. And 42 percent of them left more than three quarters of an hour late.

Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport had a punctuality rate of 29 percent, the US company FlightStats.com said in its report.

That will not be news to many of the 82 million passengers who passed through Beijing Airport last year, making it the second busiest air hub in the world (after Atlanta). Long waits at airports here are routine and Chinese passengers are growing increasingly less likely to put up with them.

Especially when nobody tells them what is going on, which is usually the case.

Three weeks ago, angry Air China passengers who had found themselves stranded for 24 hours at the Three Gorges airport, either because of bad weather or because of mechanical problems, depending on who was doing the explaining, gathered in a crowd to block passengers from boarding another Air China flight.

Last year, frustrated passengers at two different airports rushed the tarmac, preventing planes from landing or taking off, in protest at the way they had been treated while their flights were delayed.

The stormy weather at this time of year does not help, but the main problems are the huge increase in air traffic as Chinese citizens take to the air instead of traveling by train, and the lack of available airspace.

Air traffic figures have been rising by over 10 percent a year for some time, and the Civil Aviation Authority of China expects China’s fleet of commercial aircraft to double to 4,200 planes by 2020, according to its chief Wang Liya.

But the People’s Liberation Air Force controls almost all of China’s airspace, and allots only 20 percent to commercial aviation, which makes delays almost inevitable.

The Beijing-Shanghai route is by far the most congested and prone to outrageous delays – it is generally quicker to take the high-speed train than to fly the 670 miles that separate the two cities.

But provincial airports haven’t got much to boast about either, according to the FlightStats report. None of the Chinese airports surveyed could get even half their flights off the ground on time – which FlightStats takes to mean “within 15 minutes of scheduled departure.”

Getting passengers airborne is not the only thing Beijing Airport is slow about. When I rang the airport spokesman to ask why he thought Beijing came bottom of the rankings, he did not exactly hop to it. 

“Fax me your question,” he said, “and we will answer in two or three days.” 

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