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Relief in sight for long-suffering passengers
By Xu Xiaomin and Miao Qing (Shanghai Star)
Updated: 2004-07-22 11:04

Talking about the flight delay on July 4, Ge Gangqiang, a local media worker, was unable to calm down.

Passengers show their protest paper to ask more compensation for losses because of the delay of a flight of the China Eastern Airline in Ningbo, East China's Zhejiang Province, July 11, 2004. The flight from Beijing to Ningbo was delayed for seven hours at the Capital International Airport of Beijing. Finally every passenger got 200 yuan (US$24) for the delay. [newsphoto]

Because of heavy storms, the flight of China Eastern MU5102 from Beijing to Shanghai, which should have taken off at 10:00pm, didn't actually begin its journey until 4:15am the next day.

"What riled us was not the delay, but the bad service at Beijing Airport," he said. "Until 1:30am, no one in the airport or the airline company had come to make an explanation or give an apology. All the passengers were left in the cold airport without food and water."

The result was, all the passengers remained seated in the plane and refused to leave after the flight arrived in Shanghai at about 6:00am on July 5. The deadlock continued for about four hours. After negotiation, every passenger received 200 yuan (US$24.20) as compensation.

Compensation standards

This was not the only recent flight delay dispute case.

From July 7 to the early morning of July 8, at least eight flights from Pudong International Airport were delayed, according to a report in the Shanghai Youth Daily.

China Eastern flights MU2553, MU5304, MU5830, MU2554 were delayed for over three hours, for five hours and 50 minutes, for four hours and 30 minutes and for three hours and 40 minutes respectively. Another two flights from Shanghai Airlines were also delayed for from one to three hours.

In addition, flight delays have attracted considerable media attention around the country. This was stimulated by the official announcement from the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) responding to the compensation arrangement for the June 26 passengers.

According to the CAAC plan, all airline companies should complete and publicize compensation standards by the end of this year.

The CAAC's stated aim in making the suggestion was to minimize the occurrence of flight delays.

Up to this point, China's airline companies had avoided committing themselves to written compensation arrangements for flight delays, even though other large airlines companies throughout the world had accepted the necessity of such agreements. Some overseas airline companies upgrade seats or provide hotel rooms to delayed customers, while others pay cash in compensation.

"As an airline, we would rather all flights took place as scheduled," said Cao Haiyan, PR manager with Air France. "But if there is any delay, we will compensate passengers in strict accordance with our regulations."

Bold new step

Two airline passengers wait for their delayed flight in an airport in Shanghai. [newsphoto]
After CAAC produced the suggestion last month, Shenzhen Airlines became the first company to "eat the crab" - taking the lead in publicizing its compensation details.

"The Guide to Customer Service in Shenzhen Airlines", including the first explicit regulations for compensation in the case of flight delays in China, was published by Shenzhen Airlines on July 5, a bold new step for the nation's civil aviation industry.

According to this regulation, the financial compensation could even match the face value of the airfare in cases where the delay exceeded eight hours, as long as flights were delayed by factors for which the airline company was itself responsible, such as engine maintenance, flight plan, delivery service or in-flight service.

This Guide's 17 chapters and 19,000 words cover compensation details for over booking, the late arrival of luggage, the delay of goods, irregular flight service and personal injury suffered by customers. Shenzhen Airlines also promises to offer personal injury insurance for customers up to a value of at least 570,000 yuan (US$68,700).

Shenzhen pressure

The Shenzhen Airlines' guide has greatly added to the pressure on other companies.

One insider said such compensation commitments should be considered among the normal cost of operations. Yet many airlines have yet to publicize the details of their compensation plans, mainly because they are waiting to see how their competitors will respond to the new pressures.

An attractive compensation scheme might attract some passengers, but over-generous compensation could also lead to higher costs - and ticket prices. The insider also said it is possible major airlines companies may reach a common agreement compensation standards, in order to prevent the issue triggering a new spiral of competition and losses.

The Information Times said China Southern Airlines, Air China and China Eastern Airlines seemed set to co-operatively produce a unified compensation standard, but this has not been confirmed by sources with the companies. The spokespeople of the two local airlines, Shanghai Airlines and China Eastern, have also kept silent on the topic.

"The topic is too sensitive, it is difficulty for us to make a comment," said Hu Minghua, president of the Civil Aviation College of Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

A woman official who asked to remain anonymous from the East China Bureau of CAAC said setting standard levels of compensation for flight delays was proving more difficult than people had expected.

"Flight delays can result from a variety of complicated factors involving airline companies, airports and customers and sometimes those problems caused by the delivery and examination of the customers are ignored," she said.

Plain language

Her words were echoed by Wu Jianduan, an aviation expert. He said flights require the combined efforts of the airport, the aviation administration and airline companies, which all play an important role in the whole process. The aviation administration was responsible for providing reliable information about the weather, visibility levels and the status of air traffic to the airline companies, which could only fly with the approval of the administration.

"Sometimes it is difficult for the airline companies to clearly explain reasons for a flight delay. The contributory factors can not always be easily or publicly identified," the woman said.

According to statistics from the CAAC, there are over 20 common reasons for abnormal flights, including bad weather, flight control difficulties, commercial dislocation, technical aircraft problems and late passengers. Several of these factors might easily combine to affect a single flight's schedule.

In the first five months of this year, an average of 22.1 per cent of flights were subject to delay, about 2 per cent above the international norm. According to a report in the Guangzhou Daily, the main reason for the excess of flight delays was a shortage of planes.

In the first half of this year, most airline companies added new flights. Due to the limited number of planes, many ended up having to fly several times in a single day. For instance, the average plane operated by China Eastern would have been making 5.7 flights everyday. If any journey is stricken by delays, this ripples through the system affecting many others.

According to the predictions of the CAAC, the aviation industry will expand at a rate of roughly 8 per cent annually over the next few years, with the total number of passengers reaching 100 million next year.

The total number of planes operated by Chinese civil aviation companies should rise from the several hundred presently flying to more than 2,000 over the next few years. But experts have estimated that even 2,200 to 2,400 planes will still not be enough to match the rising demand for flights that is accompanying the country's rapid urbanization.

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