China's New 'Unrestricted Takeoff' Policy Creates More Problems Than It Solves

A new Chinese policy meant to reduce egregious flights delays will likely waste fuel and potentially create a safety risk, and is a sign of how the country is struggling to handle the booming growth of its aviation market.

The Problem

Ranked by on-time departure performance, the 20 worst airports in Asia are all in China.

More than 80% of flights leave Beijing Capital International Airport late, according to Other large Chinese airports aren’t much better.

Chronic delays, caused in part by crowded skies and military use of airspace, have led to passenger brawls and protests.

“Unrestricted Takeoff”

In an attempt to alleviate the stress of waiting at the airport, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) has created a policy dubbed “unrestricted takeoff.”

Under the new rules, in place at eight major airports, once all the passengers are on board a plane and the doors are shut, the plane is cleared to take off — whether or not a landing spot will be available at its destination.

Safety Questions

At first glance, this policy seems likely to create dangerous chaos, with aeroplanes randomly taking off, circling airports, and darting for the same, rare, landing spots.

But aviation experts say the policy won’t create real safety concerns. Doug Moss, a former test pilot and aircraft accident investigator, said safety is “not a huge issue.” Departures will still be controlled, he explained. “It’s not like the guys are taking off without takeoff clearance.”

Asked if this would generate safety hazards, Robert Ditchey said “not necessarily at all, it depends on congestion at the arrival airport.” Ditchey is a a former Navy pilot who has worked as a manager at various airlines, and now works as an expert witness in aviation and airline industry litigation.

And if two planes do come close to crashing, they have built-in collision avoidance systems.

Moss noted one potentially dangerous situation, if the pilot of a circling plane waiting to land failed to notice low fuel levels. Air traffic controllers can’t see how much fuel is left in a plane’s tanks, so an inattentive pilot could find himself in an emergency situation.

Unrestricted takeoff is “not unsafe so much as wasteful,” airline pilot, blogger, and author of Cockpit Confidential Patrick Smith said in an email. “Worst case you wind up with a bunch of planes in holding patterns, burning thousands of gallons of jet fuel.”

Wasted fuel won’t impact safety, but could hurt Chinese airlines’ bottom lines. Buying fuel accounted for 33% of global airline operations costs in 2012. Add in the fact that air pollution is already at crisis levels in China, and the extra burned fuel is bad news.

The Real Problem

Unrestricted takeoff is unlikely to make Chinese aviation less safe, but it’s not a real improvement. It’s a Band-Aid solution, a way to disguise delays on the ground as delays in the air.

And it’s a clear indicator of the trouble the country is having dealing with its booming aviation market.

Nanchang china airport fightYouTube ScreenshotPassengers brawl at Nanchang airport.

In 2012, Chinese airlines carried 361.4 million passengers. The growth rate of China’s aviation market is near 20%, and the number of planes operating in the country has nearly tripled in the past decade, to 1,400 aircraft,
according to the International Air Transport Association.

In the next three years, just three Chinese airlines plan to add 273 more planes to their fleets.

Things will only get more complicated as China executes its plan to build 82 airports and expand more than 100 existing ones by 2015.

That’s a huge amount of capacity to add to a system that’s quite young compared to its American counterpart.

Brent Spencer, Assistant Professor of air traffic control training at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, told the International Business Times “unrestricted takeoff” is “a huge step in the wrong direction.” To deal with air traffic problems, “airlines should also coordinate their schedules with each other,” he said.

It’s not that there’s no room in China for growth: The U.S. handles more flights in less physical airspace. But the FAA has steadily been improving air traffic control for 50 years. American aviation has already gone through what Moss called China’s “growing pains,” and is now extremely safe and quite well managed.

The federal agency is now working on NextGen, a transition from a ground-based air traffic control system to a satellite-based one, that will make further improvements.

The fact that China is working to turn delayed takeoffs into delayed arrivals, instead of on a solution like the FAA’s, is a clear sign that the growth of its aviation industry is too much for it to handle.

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