I was on some of the 937,000 flights that recorded delays over Mainland China last year. The China Civil Aviation Administration’s merciless tally reached one third of all passenger flights. It’s the highest value since record keeping began in 2006. Furthermore, the number has been growing for four consecutive years. I was among the tens of millions of passengers blocked for hours on runways without Internet or information. In 2014, nearly 400 million clients traveled on Chinese airlines. Many of them were struck by inefficiency, priority given to military maneuvers, and a diffuse incapacity to manage complex situations. Cathay Pacific—Hong Kong’s national airline—is contemplating reducing flights between the ex-colony and Shanghai because in May and June 2015 alone, it accumulated 230 delays. Therefore, the public’s admiration for China’s extraordinary civil aviation developments seems like a distant memory. Organization appeared to prevail with new fleets and sparkling new airports. Everything seemed to contribute to a poor agrarian country’s spectacular growth, exposed to concepts of industrial modernism and social dynamism for the first time in history. Clearly, China is demonstrating its limits when put to the test—as frequently happens when it needs to face serious problems without the protective shell of tradition.
The situation is made worse by the increase in thefts during flight, a crime that belonged to the most bizarre fiction until now. At the Hong Kong airport—where the majority of arrivals come from China—reports of theft in the air have doubled. Stealthy hands snatch jewelry, money, and smartphones. The police has not excluded the presence of organized gangs, while the South China Morning Post, while certainly not critical of Beijing, published a series of 5 ground rules for avoiding robbery mid flight. And yet these defects could have been received with benevolence if they had been useful to economic causes. Business, when promising, surpasses inconvenience, delays, and jetlag. Multinationals and their managers learned this at their own expense, but with clear advantages. Signing a contract or acquiring an order counted more than the anxiety of flying. Instead, today unease on a plane is caused by other faults. What is the advantage of flying in China if the GDP is slowing its race, the renminbi is undervalued, imports languish, and Chinese companies are favored in international tenders? What is the attraction of China’s pollution, immobile traffic jams, and swinging stock exchange? Obviously, we cannot reach drastic conclusions: China is too big to get lost. In any case, there are worrying signals of an economic and lifestyle slowdown. Ironically, China Southern Airlines announced that it would inaugurate flights between Rome, Wuhan, and Canton next December. It’s a forward-looking and probably wise choice. It will be an opportunity to rehabilitate the Fiumicino Airport, having to compare its air traffic management to records that, until now, have been worse than its own.