Shen Zhihong arrived at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport looking forward to a vacation at the beach only to find his flight delayed indefinitely and his holiday plans at the mercy of the People’s Liberation Army.
The 64-year-old retired professor was among thousands to have their travel obstructed last week when more than 900 flights at Shanghai’s two airports were canceled as the Chinese military staged exercises in the East China Sea. That was the most of any city in the world and more than those of the New York and Chicago metropolitan areas combined, according to Flightstats, a website that compiles airline data.
“We understand and support the needs of national defense,” Shen said as he waited to fly to the port city of Dalian with a group of former colleagues from Fudan University, where he used to teach. “But we hope there will be less and less impact on civilian flights.”
Delays at Chinese airports, ranked the world’s worst, highlight the tensions in a nation home to a swelling middle class and a ruling party with a 65-year monopoly on power that’s intent on strengthening its military. At stake is the growth of a commercial aviation market that trails only the U.S. in size and needs the PLA to cede airspace to China Southern Airlines Co. and other carriers to increase routes.
“The Western world’s been following a different model where civilians take priority,”said Geoffrey Cheng, head of transportation research at BOCOM International. “The aviation market has been developing in China at the discretion of the military releasing airspace.”
Shanghai’s Pudong airport was ranked next to last for timeliness among the world’s 35 busiest, with only 29 percent of flights departing on schedule, according to a June 2013 report by Flightstats. Beijing’s Capital International Airport was the worst, with just 18 percent of flights on time.
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