A diplomatic word on airports in the People’s Republic of China: a few are not up to world class standards just yet (ok, maybe more than a few).
Some of this is understandable. China has 1.35 billion people. The country’s demographic chart looks like a Space Shuttle contrail.
And then there’s China’s economy. Average annual GDP growth from 1980 to 2010 was 15.8%. Kung Pao chicken isn’t that hot.
Big Trouble in Big China
The point is that China, more so than any other robust, industrialised nation-state, has to confront some odious infrastructure imbroglios. You can imagine the discussions over at the Politburo. Do we invest in the Three Gorges Dam or expand the Port of Shanghai? Build the Danyang–Kunshan Grand Bridge or invest in the Three-North Shelter Forest Program (aka the largest artificial forest in the world)? Expand Beijing’s underground or build a high-speed railway from Xining to Lhasa?
The answer, time and again, has been “Yes!” and “Yes!”. Let’s do it all, in other words. The chickens have home to roost on that score, however. China is just too big and too vast to get it all done yesterday, let alone today. And this is where the country’s airports come in.
The Good, the Bad and the Delays
If you look at the numbers and judge China’s capital investment policy, it quickly becomes apparent that airports are a priority. As they should be. China has built some good ones. Haikou Meilan International is a SKYTRAX 4-star airport (there are only 14 in the world). Hong Kong International is one of only three SKYTRAX 5-star airports (Singapore Changi and Seoul Incheon are the others).
Unfortunately, over on the mainland the story is very different. Beijing Capital International, Shanghai Pudong and Guangzhou Baiyun International – China’s Big Three – can be good at the best of times – world class good in fact – but efficiency tends to disintegrate when you handle 82 million, 45 million and 48 million passengers a year.
A Scathing Study
The raw data is not on the side of the country’s airports. A 2013 study by FlightStats, a U.S. air travel information service, concluded that mainland airports in China fare worst when it comes to on-time departures and arrivals. Only 18.3% of flights depart Beijing Capital on time, for instance. Shanghai Pudong was better at 28.72%, but not by enough to be any less shameful.
Predictably, mainland airlines fared just as poorly. None could manage to get half of their flights on time. While no specific reasons were provided, analysts agree that the stresses on China’s airports and airlines are just too much. From tight restrictions on airspace to heavy congestion, it’s a traveller’s worst nightmare.
The usual clichés for packing thus apply in China – perhaps more so than anywhere.
Pack light. Pack once, unpack, remove half your stuff, and pack again. Pack light.
Omit liquids, gels, aerosols and all that jazz. Obviously.
Know your baggage allowance. One small check-in luggage and a comfortable, functional carry-on is recommended. Security in China is very strict about size and weight restrictions so err on the side of caution at all times. Mercifully, however, security is much less grabby than the U.S.A.’s T.S.A. No pat-downs or full body x-rays in China.
Wi-Fi can be elusive in some airports in mainland China but, nonetheless, a good smartphone or tablet computer can be your best mate.
Connections = bad. Fly direct whenever possible, even if you have to shell out a little more yuan.
Get to know the local hotel landscape. If you get hit with a major delay or last-minute layover at Hongqiao International, for instance, hotels Putuo Shanghai may just save your hide.