Two events in recent months have provided a startling picture of different aspects of China's rapid acquisition of technology and its race to equal if not better international front runners. Both involve China's major airlines, which have worked hard to overcome lingering perceptions of poor air safety.
China's major airlines are all effectively state-run, although some have a portion of shares publicly listed. The key majors are Air China, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines operating out of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou respectively. Other smaller carriers either fall within the ambit of the three majors, operate with the support of local authorities, or – a new development – are developing without any form of state or regional government ownership. Given the blistering growth rate of the sector, the airline administration authority, CAAC, has been expressing concern about too much, too fast, and has put a cap on the number of new aircraft that can be purchased this year. But the cap can be circumvented by leasing and by delaying new aircraft arriving for a short while, and now there is concern about progress even at the major carriers.
The safety record is in fact respectable-two fatal crashes last year, the latest in November at Baotou in Inner Mongolia involving a China Eastern Canadian-built CRJ regional jet that crashed just after take-off for reasons still to be established. Chinese carriers have had three fatal crashes in the past four years, compared with 17 in the US in the same period. To be fair, the US has almost 10 times the number of airliners. But average fleet age is far lower in China at about 6.5-7.5 years as new aircraft are added; the U.S. fleet's average age is about 13 years.
One positive example of how things are changing in China is a series of satellite navigation safety tests conducted in April, which have confirmed a new set of weather condition standards for flights into Lhasa in Tibet. Many flights into Lhasa are canceled or have to turn back before landing because of fast-changing weather conditions. A series of tests of a satellite-based navigation system were run by Air China and CAAC working with Boeing Flight Service Group – a unit of giant US aircraft manufacturer Boeing – and Naverus, a US-based specialist in satellite-based navigation. They established that aircraft could operate to and from Lhasa with satellite navigation aid, increasing safety and lowering costs.
Almost in parallel, an incident involving China Eastern Airlines in London on March 31 showed the other side of the coin. As Flight MU522 was taking off from London's Heathrow Airport at 9:45 pm, it was seen to fly at about five feet off the ground for a while, then as it lifted up, the tail hit the ground with a shower of sparks, leaving a 30-foot-long scrape mark on the runway before the aircraft climbed away. Controllers radioed the crew, who confirmed they were aware of the tail strike. But instead of dumping fuel and – as required by the operating manual – returning to land, the crew elected to continue the flight non-stop to Shanghai.
A few days later, the aircraft – an Airbus A340-300 – was seen on the ground at Shanghai's Pudong Airport. Says British air safety expert David Learmount, who writes for industry magazine Flight International: "They took a terrible risk and they got away with it." The reason for the manual's instruction to land is simple: The aircraft's outer skin is also its pressure shell and the support for a vital pressure bulkhead inside the tail section. As the aircraft rises to altitude and becomes pressurized, damage to the skin can on its own, or combined with damage to the bulkhead, cause the skin or the bulkhead to burst, with catastrophic results. This has happened in modern times to Japan Airlines and China Airlines aircraft that crashed as a result of such tail damage. The manual says to land as soon as possible and not to fly above 10,000 feet or minimum safe altitude (i.e., don't pressurize the aircraft and check for damage as soon as possible).
Why would a well-trained crew do such a thing? Loss of face and/or fear of the consequences of admitting to a serious mistake, thinks Learmount. He says China's airlines have improved a great deal, but there is still a cultural problem and a fear of punishment. "They do recognize when they've got a problem, they're not stuck in the past," he says. "But at the same time there's a cultural aspect that makes them deny that a mistake has happened."
However, Learmount adds that in fairness, a fear of admitting mistakes is not confined to China "blame-seeking? by police after air accidents is prevalent in Japan and South Korea, for instance, and even France saw similar actions after the Concorde crash at Paris. What is needed, he says, is a "blame-free" culture in which mistakes are used as lessons to bring about improvements to safety instead of being covered up. "China is not the only country in the world where if you report something, you're out," he notes.
China's air safety reporting is not transparent, so what action has been taken internally over this incident remains unknown. And while the incident was noted in Britain, it remains just that – an incident, not an accident, so there will be no major investigation. Perhaps a quiet word? A blame-free culture seems a long way off.
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