China's traffic jams and flight delays: A traveller's nightmare

It is a competition that no one wants to win but in the battle of the worst traffic ever, China wins hands down.

Pictures of a monster traffic jam with 50 lanes of cars parked bumper to bumper went viral last week as tens of thousands of motorists returned to Beijing at the end of the week-long National Day holiday, known also as the "Golden Week".

The more than 2,200-km Beijing-Hong Kong-Macau expressway - which connects the northern Chinese capital of Beijing with Shenzhen, a major city in southern Guangdong province - became entirely gridlocked as a newly opened checkpoint that reduced the 50-lane highway to just 20 lanes caused a severe bottleneck.

For many travellers, their vacation quickly became a hellish nightmare.

But while national-wide holidays such as Golden Week and Spring Festival are often accompanied by chaotic tales of crowds and congestion, nightmarish travel stories in China are not uncommon even outside of those peak seasons.

My worst travel ordeal involved a 15-hour domestic flight delay and being put up overnight in a hotel room with a stranger - a traumatising experience that till today still makes me nervous whenever I am scheduled to take a domestic flight.

It happened on a work trip to north-eastern Jilin city late last year. I was scheduled to take a 9pm flight back to Beijing, where I am based, a journey that should typically take no more than 90 minutes.

When we were first informed that the flight had been delayed by an hour and a half due to bad weather conditions, I was unfazed, thinking of myself as a seasoned traveller who had acquired a certain amount of zen to deal with these inconveniences.

But as the estimated time of departure kept on being pushed back, a sinking feeling crept into the pit of my stomach. It went from 10.30pm to midnight to 2.30am before the screen at the departure gate ominously went blank.

"At this stage, we are unable to give a new departure time. No update has been given by the aviation authorities and we will just have to wait," the ground staff told livid passengers, who were by this time understandably losing their temper at the frustration of mindlessly waiting for hours on end.

By then, the initial calming effect that free packets of instant cup noodles given out by the airline had on frayed nerves had also worn out.

Passengers refused to believe the explanation that bad weather in Beijing had delayed the flight after an online check of the capital's air traffic found that planes were continuing to land there.

Finally at 3am, we were informed that the flight was cancelled and we would be ferried to a nearby hotel to rest. There was no new flight time given and we were just told to look out for a text message.

I reached the hotel at 4am, thoroughly exhausted and eager for some shut eye. But it was only when I registered at the hotel reception with my boarding pass did I realise to my horror that we would be paired with strangers to share a room for the night.

My roommate was a woman in her 50s who was also travelling alone. While she was soft-spoken and seemed kind, I was unable to rest well the entire night knowing that a complete stranger was in the room with me.

Eventually, we received an early morning call telling us that the flight had been rescheduled to noon.

And so it was only a full 15 hours from the original departure time that we got off the ground. I let out a huge sigh of relief as the plane's wheels lifted off from the tarmac, profoundly grateful that I was finally on the way home.

With a population of almost 1.4 billion and a rapidly growing number of middle-class travellers placing an increasing strain on the country's travel infrastructure, many more who have lived in China are likely to have shared various forms of such ordeals.

In 2014, the number of Chinese air passengers reached 392 million, up 11 per cent from 2013. The International Air Transport Association predicts that China will surpass the United States to become the world's largest civil aviation market by 2034.

But flight delays and cancellations have also risen for the fourth consecutive year last year to reach their highest levels since such data was first made available in 2006, according to China's Civil Aviation Administration in August .

About 937,000 - or a third - of all mainland flights did not leave on time last year, said the regulator. Of the world's 61 largest airports, the seven worst for on-time departures last year were also Chinese, including Beijing Capital, according to US-based FlightStats.

One of the crucial issues is airspace and the Chinese military's control of it, experts say, although rapid growth in the aviation sector means that air traffic control and other infrastructure are overburdened and in need of upgrades.

Though there aren't any statistics on what these delays - whether flight delays or massive traffic jams - cost Chinese travellers and the overall economy, the figure is not likely to be a small one.

The saving grace in all of this, however, is China's high-speed rail network.

It is the world's largest and still expanding rail network with traffic growing from 128 million trips in 2008 to 672 million trips in 2013. It is fast, clean and efficient, promising punctuality down to the minute.

Beijing is also investing more with rail spending this year likely to exceed the previous peak in 2010, and be maintained at about 850 billion yuan (S$185.4 billion) per year for the 2016 to 2020 period, according to UBS Group's estimates.

In fact, China has gotten so good at rail technology that it is even now exporting it to other countries - offering hope that should policy and capital come together, many of China's other travel kinks can also be ironed out.

This article was first published on October 15, 2015.
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