Congestion used to be the bane of Europe and US airports and major air routes. But it’s a pain now felt across Asia-Pacific, hurting the efficiency of even some of the region’s best-run and most highly regarded airports.

Aviation infrastructure shortcomings in the fast-growing Asia-Pacific region have reached a level where IATA has had to warn governments in the area of the potential cost to their economies if they do not quickly address airport and airspace congestion.

IATA Regional VP, Asia-Pacific Conrad Clifford, speaking at the IATA World Financial Symposium in Singapore in September, said there was a huge shift occurring within the global activity of the airline industry, with China set to take over the US as the largest market and Asia-Pacific countries having some of the world’s fastest growing markets. India, for example, is seeing 20% year-on-year growth in terms of passenger numbers.

The region’s airlines have enough new aircraft coming in to cope with that growth, but shortfalls in capacity in terms of runways, airport terminals and airspace have become “dire,” Clifford said.

“Governments have to do something about this. They’ve been caught out by the growth and the explosion of LCC [low cost carrier] activity the past five years. That’s caught everybody by surprise,” he noted.

Clifford said some airlines with large numbers of new aircraft on order are not sure where they will find slots for them, or even where they will find ramp space to park the aircraft.

Runways at many major airports are close to capacity. By 2019, Beijing Capital, Hong Kong, Manila and Singapore all will have reached their runway capacity limits. The airport terminals of Beijing, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Manila, Seoul Incheon and Bangkok also have reached capacity.

IATA has launched a “value of aviation” campaign to highlight to governments in the region the necessity of ensuring infrastructure keeps pace with commercial aviation growth and the link to a country’s GDP. “We are going to the governments to say something has to be done and it has to be done quickly,” Clifford said.

The need for sustained investment in aviation infrastructure and air traffic management systems has been emphasized by organizations in the area, including the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA), Airports Council International Asia-Pacific and the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization.

The region’s congestion issues are costing airlines millions of dollars and forcing them to rework schedules and operations. Bangkok Airways, for example, moved virtually all its LCC operations to a re-opened Don Mueang Airport, but Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International still suffered frequent delays. The result is a building up of delays through the day, especially on routes such as Bangkok-Phuket that has frequent daily services.

Philippine Airlineshas calculated that each minute an aircraft is delayed costs the company $60, adding up to an annual lost revenue of $40-$45 million. Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International (NAI) has become one of the most congested airports in Asia; last year that led to limiting aircraft movements to just 40 an hour, restricting PAL’s ability to grow.

China project

Work is being in done some areas done to address the problem. A flight delay management project trialed at Xi’an International Airport, for example, is showing results and may be extended to other airports in China where delays have become commonplace.

The project, launched by the US-China Aviation Cooperation Program (ACP), and outlines of other delay-reducing efforts being implemented by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) were revealed at the US-China Aviation Summit in Washington DC earlier this year.

US Trade and Development Agency director Leocadia Zak said reducing flight delays was a top priority for CAAC. That was why ACP launched a flight delay management program in 2015, with a pilot project aimed at determining how best to expand capacity at Xi’an.

“The project has already helped United Airlines create a more direct flight path between our countries,” Zak said, “The project’s stakeholders are also identifying technologies that can address flight delays.

“Like most ACP activities, the Xi’an project connects experts from the US and China, from government and industry. But what is different about this project is that it’s also doing it at all levels of government; local, regional and national.”

By 2034, Zak said, the US-China aviation market will serve nearly 2.5 billion people. China has 210 commercial airports and last year it saw the launching of 107 new international routes, bringing its total international routes to 660. That, combined with fast growth in domestic flights, is putting huge stress on China’s ground infrastructure and airspace, CAAC deputy administer Wang Zhiqing said in a summit keynote.

“Our American friends have two different types of forecast for the future—some see a hard landing for China’s economy and I think there’s some truth in that, but it’s also a bit pessimistic. China’s economy is not going to tank … in the next five years the economy will have a new large middle class come into play,” Wang said.

That population will grow from 100 million in 2015 to 600 million in 2020 and it will have paid vacation time to travel back and forth to Japan, Korea, the US, Europe and elsewhere.

“I’ve done the math. [Chinese airline] fleet size and traffic is still a third of the US, but our population is five times the size of the US populations, so there is so much more room and potential for growth in China,” Wang said.

To accommodate that, CAAC has embarked on a program to increase its commercial aviation capacity over the next five years and reduce flight delays from some 90 minutes to five minutes, while maintaining high safety standards.

CAAC deputy DG, Air Traffic Management Bureau, Li QiGuo said the delays resulted mainly from a shortage of infrastructure, new technology and skilled professionals.

The ATM program is working with Chinese military authorities to free up more airspace. It is also building four national commercial aviation command and control centers that can better coordinate flights, especially during severe weather. And it is looking to reform and modernize China’s ATM system and to optimize routes, potentially borrowing templates and technologies from Europe’s SESAR and the US’ NextGen ATM modernization programs. A pilot project has been launched that optimizes approaches into Guangzhou uses a joint civil-military command and control center.

The ultimate goal is to triple China’s commercial airspace capacity and increase on-time arrival rates to 85% or higher, Li said. “Our vision is to become a first-class air navigation service provider for the world by 2030.”

In southeast Asia, there are also some projects being trialed to better harmonize airspace. The ATM authorities of different countries are working more closely to notify each other of known congestion points and weather issues so that decisions can be made earlier and aircraft holding patterns reduced.

Another challenge related to Asia-Pacific’s fast aviation growth rate is a shortage of qualified professionals —not just pilots and engineers, but those with technical know-how across the aviation sector, Clifford said.

Pointing to a forecast done by Boeing, Clifford said the single largest need for new pilots and technicians will be in Asia-Pacific, with 248,000 new pilots required and 268,000 new technicians over the next 20 years.

Patchy growth

These issues are set within a context of a region that continues to see air travel demand grow. But the growth story is different depending on where you look.

AAPA reported that Asia-Pacific airlines carried 25.9 million international passengers in August, up 4.1% year-over-year (YOY), but down from 26.2 million in July. International passenger demand grew 4.2% YOY to 95.45 billion RPKs, continuing to reflect traffic growth for both regional and long-haul routes, AAPA said. August’s rate of growth, however, was half of July’s 8.4% growth.

August capacity on international scheduled services outpaced demand, growing 6.2% YOY to 117.18 billion ASKs. As a result, the month’s passenger load factor for international services dropped 1.5 points YOY to 81.5%.

Asian airlines’ August air cargo traffic grew 2.5% YOY to 5.39 billion freight tonnes-per-kilometer (FTKs), slowing from July’s 3.9% growth. Freight capacity increased 2.3% YOY to 8.91 billion FATKs, resulting in a 60.5% freight load factor, up 0.1 point YOY.

AAPA DG Andrew Herdman noted the region’s modest uptick for air cargo in recent months, but described international air cargo demand for the January–August period as “generally lackluster, registering a 0.7% volume decline, compared to the same period [in 2015].”