China’s closed airspace hasn’t changed much in 20 years

China’s military continues to so control–and close airspace–in China that delays are rampant, this AP story reports. We’re reminded on the era when we were doing business in China, going there nine times in a 4 1/2 year period from December 1988-mid 1993.

Visiting a number of airlines there, one of which was operated by the military, along with CAAC, CASC and the McDonnell Douglas Shanghai factory, we were struck by the low aircraft utilization: only six or seven hours. Western standards were 10 or more. Even then, we were told, the military control of the skies was a key factor. The low utilization rate then clearly contributed to the need to buy more airplanes to meet traffic growth than was necessary. We haven’t seen any data on today’s utilization rate, but we have to believe this nexus remains.

Flying Chinese carriers then was pretty alarming at times. A ramp worker smoked while refueling a plane, with the refueling connection spraying fuel on the ramp. Carry-on baggage was in the aisle on take off. A person was in the lav on take off. We’ve read some stories in recent years that suggest not much has changed.

Back then, getting into China had limited options. We flew to Tokyo and pretty much had to take Air China into Beijing. A direct air route would go over Korea. We couldn’t go through North Korean air space and apparently flying over South Korean to China was then forbidden, so we had to route south around the Korean peninsula, adding a great deal of time to the flight.

The McDonnell Douglas Shanghai factory was primitive even by standards of the day then, well before robotics and moving production lines. The factory was producing one MD-80 a month and the planes were essentially hand-built. This antecedent might be why the MD-80-looking ARJ21 is having such difficulty. The factory drew so much power that parts of Shanghai went brown-out or black-out during the day, an issue presumably long-since overcome in the Shanghai power grid.

The MD-80 plant was supposed to be MDC’s “in” to gain market share. While selling something like 40 MD-80s/90s (if memory serves) to China via this plant, the venture clearly was a failure and the Chinese used the operation to learn a bit about commercial aviation. Embraer had an ERJ plant in China for the same purpose, and likewise came up short of its goal while the Chinese benefited more. The Airbus plant in Tianjin seems to have been more successful, but we don’t think it’s coincidence that the COMAC C919 looks a lot like the A320.

6 Comments on “China’s closed airspace hasn’t changed much in 20 years

  1. Well I can say that in 1997, things re flying had not changed much. Was on a local tour of 3 buses( about 110 bodies ). Due to some medical problems with one of those on the tour who had to be sent back to U.S with escort, our scheduled flight from Bejing to ?? ( forget ) was missed. As a result, our local ( Chinese tour guides ) made some alternate arrangements. after traveling thru the back streets of Bejing ( definitely NOT on tour route ) we wound up at some sort of local airfield- and were the only people around except for a few ground crew – definitely military. Got aboard the Russian version of the 727 ( TU 154? ) . web seats and very casual arrangements. flight was somewhat uneventful until approach to landing. Then it was the dive and drive, such that one moment was slight negative g as nose was pushed down, then positive g as nose was pushed up. Two or three times reminded me of an e ticket ride at Disney . . . landing only slightly bounced twice.
    side note follows
    Unfortunately we had a loud mouth BA executive in our group when we visited XIAN – ( terracotta soldiers . Despite printed and verbal warnings, he took video shots of the terracotta soldiers and was caught. Tour guide had to grease a few palms, etc this time with only a minor delay. But the shouting and denials and the rapid fire chinese between exec, chinese guard- and our tour guide virtually drowned out the local tour guides descriptions of the terra cotta soldiers.

  2. BTW- for those who might not have made the connection – at that time BA had a facility in XIAN producing some sub assemblies…

  3. You should have let me know that you were there our FLAPA friend is the chief fleet 737-777-767 of AirChina and he was later the manager of the tianjing branch. He came to Seattle to visit me when his crew was taking delivery of a new 737 last year. Keep writing we highly enjoy your analysts spirit in this babble tower of the aviation nowadays.

  4. My experience is earlier – just two months before Tiaminh square. Flew from Shanghai to Beijing in a (I think) A300 – missing floor panel so that one could see the hydraulics while the cabin crew piled luggage in front of the doors so that they had room to put their feet up! Then from Beijing to Xian, flight cancelled so sent on a military Boeing clone. Flight was good except for a ‘stop on the way’ – flight and cabin crew got out and went into a building to have a one-hour lunch. We were not allowed to leave the plane. Glad that things are getting better!

  5. I think calling a TU154 a russian version of the 727 is more for the young non aerospace patriots from the cold war. They (and the earlier Trident) are entirely different aircraft from entire different back grounds. The only thing they share is the reality at the time engines weren’t powerful / reliable enough to put just two on a 150+ seat aircraft from short runways.
    http://www.travelvivi.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/Tu154.JPG

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