Smog at China’s Airports Incite Riots, Require Blind Landings

Forget the days when pilots were expected to have perfect vision. China prefers pilots who can fly blind. Smog in China’s major cities has gotten so bad that it’s actually visible from space, and airline pilots can no longer rely on sight alone when landing their aircraft. So, starting in January, Chinese aviation authorities will ...

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Forget the days when pilots were expected to have perfect vision. China prefers pilots who can fly blind.

Smog in China's major cities has gotten so bad that it's actually visible from space, and airline pilots can no longer rely on sight alone when landing their aircraft. So, starting in January, Chinese aviation authorities will require pilots to master low-visibility landings.

China's notoriously bad air quality isn't just an environmental issue, it also has consequences for air travel in the country. Beijing Capital International Airport has become notorious for its flight delays, many of which are caused or exacerbated by air pollution. Only 18 percent of flights departing Beijing leave on time. Shanghai has a slightly better but still dismal record, with 28 percent of flights leaving on time. Delays are so severe in some cases that they've caused near riots. Between May and August of this year, state media reported 26 brawls in airports around the country. In January, disgruntled travelers at Changshui International Airport in Kunming climbed over check-in counters, took over the airport's PA system, and attacked both airport staff and ticket machines when their flights were canceled due to low visibility. And at Shanghai Pudong International Airport, delayed travelers have been running onto airport runways in protest. Even airline workers aren't immune to the mania -- here's a video of a ground crew member getting into a fight with a disgruntled passenger:

Forget the days when pilots were expected to have perfect vision. China prefers pilots who can fly blind.

Smog in China’s major cities has gotten so bad that it’s actually visible from space, and airline pilots can no longer rely on sight alone when landing their aircraft. So, starting in January, Chinese aviation authorities will require pilots to master low-visibility landings.

China’s notoriously bad air quality isn’t just an environmental issue, it also has consequences for air travel in the country. Beijing Capital International Airport has become notorious for its flight delays, many of which are caused or exacerbated by air pollution. Only 18 percent of flights departing Beijing leave on time. Shanghai has a slightly better but still dismal record, with 28 percent of flights leaving on time. Delays are so severe in some cases that they’ve caused near riots. Between May and August of this year, state media reported 26 brawls in airports around the country. In January, disgruntled travelers at Changshui International Airport in Kunming climbed over check-in counters, took over the airport’s PA system, and attacked both airport staff and ticket machines when their flights were canceled due to low visibility. And at Shanghai Pudong International Airport, delayed travelers have been running onto airport runways in protest. Even airline workers aren’t immune to the mania — here’s a video of a ground crew member getting into a fight with a disgruntled passenger:

Come January, pilots flying into Beijing from other Chinese airports will have to rely on auto-landing equipment when visibility is low, which should reduce delays to some extent. But smog is only part of the problem. Another is the state of Chinese skies, 80 percent of which are controlled by the military.

The military, for its part, isn’t too troubled by the pollution. One nationalist Chinese newspaper tried to spin the rampant smog as a national defense strategy. 

Tell that to China’s commercial pilots.

Catherine A. Traywick is a fellow at Foreign Policy.

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