You know you have a problem when the smog gets so bad even airplanes can’t land safely anymore.
This is what happened last month, when an airplane coming from Japan had close to zero visibility as it was trying to land in Beijing. There was thick smog blanketing the city.
It was so bad that the plane requested permission to land at two alternative airports. However, permission was initially denied and the plane was forced to keep circling in the air.
After what must have felt like hours, the plane was finally granted permission to land at a different airport. This was after it had to declare an emergency when the fuel ran dangerously low. It’s not difficult to imagine what the passengers must have been through on that flight.
Severe pollution a common occurrence
Of course, it was not the only case of interrupted flight patterns that particular weekend, when the air pollution levels spiked at 470 on the Air Quality Index.
The AQI measures fine particulate matter in the air, and these numbers translate to “severely polluted”. (According to the World Health Organization, a healthy reading would be 20. Anything over 200 is “very unhealthy.”)
The visibility during that time was only 200 metres, not the safest conditions to land passenger planes, and it caused at least 60 airplanes to be diverted to other airports.
In order to land in China, the standard visibility has to be 550 metres, pilots say.
Economic and health effects
Travel disruptions are not a recent phenomenon in smog-filled Beijing. The extreme air pollution is regularly wreaking havoc in the travel industry, costing the economy (not just in China) millions of dollars. There have even been reports of smog being sucked into the plane. Yikes.
The smog is especially bad in the winter months in northern China, when the government uses coal to heat homes, spewing toxic contaminants into the air.
Breathing in all this polluted air is also affecting the health of the Chinese public. Anti-haze masks are routinely sold out, but on days with severe air pollution, emergency rooms still get flooded with people in respiratory distress.
Studies have linked the toxic chemicals and gases in the smog to health effects such as cancer, respiratory disease, cardiac disease and reduced life expectancy.