“Your flight from Shanghai is going to be late,” I told my wife with certainty.
This was the last thing she wanted to hear before embarking on a three flight, 26 hour porthole to porthole dirge with our four year old daughter. Shanghai to Xiamen was their last leg. Domestic flights out of Shanghai are almost always screwed up — it is one of the worst airports on the planet for flight delays and cancellations.
I prepared to go to the airport as my wife’s hour and a half flight out of Shanghai was supposed to take off. I sat online waiting for confirmation that her plane had departed. She was flying Delta, but the flight would be served by China Eastern Airlines. So I went to the Delta website and it said the flight was on time, but it was nearly a half hour after its scheduled departure time and there was no indication that it left yet. Something was wrong: either Delta was lax in reporting the flight’s departure or they were lying that it was on time.
Anyway, I went to the airport as if the flight was really flying as scheduled. I arrived to find that the flight was listed on the airport’s ticker board without any status. It didn’t say that the flight was en route, it didn’t say that it was delayed, it didn’t say that it was canceled, it just said nothing. There was a big blank space where the flight status should have been. A half hour later the flight disappeared from the board all together. Something was wrong.
I went to the information booth to ask what was going on.
“The flight is delayed.”
“Has it left Shanghai yet?”
“When will it leave?”
“We don’t know.”
My annoyance here was not that the flight was late — this happens, it’s normal (especially in China) — but because of the fact that neither Delta, China Eastern Airline, nor the airport would give anyone information on the flight’s status. It was almost as if they were all trying to hide something, as if they were passing the buck of responsibility, as if they thought if they didn’t report the flight late that the public and flight statisticians might not notice. It seemed sneaky. Obviously Delta/ China Eastern Airways/ the airports knew the flight was delayed, but they refused to report it. The airline was claiming on time status as the plane sat idly on the runway, unboarded over a half hour after it was supposed to depart.
I could have been sitting in my hotel room or out doing something rather than standing with my nuts in my hand in the arrivals hall of the Xiamen airport waiting for a flight that may or may not come in.
Of course there is a problem with China’s air system — it’s one of the worst on the planet — but there is also a problem with how airlines and airports respond to these problems. It’s almost as if there is a roundabout blame game being played, where the airlines don’t want to take responsibility for flight delays and cancellations that are not of their own making, so they play dumb and act as though everything is going smoothly.
“Everything is fine on our end so this flight must be on time.”
Air transportation is a team endeavor — it can be no other way. The airlines must be in-sync with the air traffic controllers who must be in-sync with other airport operations. Various parties must work together to run an airport efficiently. The fact that such finely calculate statistics are now being kept and readily published on flight status seems to have created a climate of competition between airlines and airports. Both parties want the best departure stats they can get, and neither seem to want to look bad for each other’s screw ups.
My wife’s flight ended up being an hour and a half late. Relatively speaking, that’s the nature of this mode of travel. But when I asked her about the delay she reported that the airline also told her nothing, same as me. Even at the source the airline was just ignoring the fact that this flight didn’t leave on time. My wife said that one minute her flight was posted at her departure gate and the next it disappeared — not to reappear again until the flight was truly ready to board an hour and a half late. There was no explanation.
The problem, as it turned out, had to do with air traffic control. It had nothing to do with airline, so, apparently, the airline didn’t want to appear to be taking any responsibility by reporting the flight delayed. In the process they left their passengers and sorry bastards waiting at the other end of the flight for them completely in the dark.
To Delta: Please stop trying to be sneaky. If one of your or your partners’ flights is on the ground after departure time, it is late. Reporting these delays in real time is extremely helpful for everybody involved.