Rapid air growth sounds alarm
The nation's aviation safety record has another huge blemish next to it following the downing of a passenger plane in North China late last month.
A total of 55 people, including six crew members and two locals who were on the ground, were killed after the 50-seat regional CRJ-200 came back to earth shortly after taking off from an airport in Baotou in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.
The small plane, built by Canadian-based Bombardier Aerospace, was operated by China Eastern Airlines.
It crashed into a frozen lake in Nanhai Park en route to China's eastern metropolis of Shanghai.
Although the two black boxes - the cabin voice recorder and the flight data recorder - have been retrieved, the cause of the tragedy is still a mystery.
More time is needed to identify what happened, although both black boxes have been decoded, an official from the General Administration of Civil Aviation of China (CAAC) said on the condition of anonymity.
This incident was the first in China since May 2002, when a China Northern MD 82 plane crashed about 20 kilometres off the coast of Dalian in the nation's northeast, killing 112 people.
The Baotou crash brought to an end the safest period in the nation's civil aviation history - 5 million flying hours in 30 months without an accident.
When the record hit the 3-million-hour mark in January this year, some domestic media outlets cautiously said China's civil aviation sector could soon be in trouble.
The prediction was based on international experience, which defines 3 million hours as the maximum period of safe flying.
On November 16, a handful of days before the Baotou crash, CAAC Vice-Director Wang Changshun said during the 57th Air Safety International Seminar in Shanghai that November 8 was the date when the total hit 5 million hours.
Yet at the same time, CAAC- China's civil aviation watchdog - was expressing increasing concerns about safety.
On November 8, CAAC issued a circular, requiring all airlines to balance the needs for safety, development and profits, enhance safety responsibility system, among others. All requirements centre on guaranteeing safe flights.
At an annual conference earlier this year, Yang Yuanyuan, CAAC's director, stressed there was now less room for error as the number of flights in Chinese air space had grown to 4,000 per day.
Human error and sabotage have been ruled out as the cause of the Baotou tragedy, according to CAAC officials.
Li Fenghua, China Eastern's general manager, has also ruled out rumours, like an irregular, earlier-than-usual take-off was the cause of the crash, or careless safety checks and operational errors by a tired crew were responsible.
Yet despite the rebuttals, clouds of doubt are still hanging over the doomed flight and the management of the overall industry in general.
String of incidents
Just 10 days prior to the latest crash, two children sneaked into the landing gear compartment of a plane that was owned by Sichuan Airlines.
One of them was killed when the plane took off and the other, miraculously, managed to survive the flight from Kunming of Yunnan Province to Chongqing Municipality.
The incident exposed airport safety management loopholes to the public.
On November 4, an A340 jet owned by Air China, which was en route to Paris from Chengdu in the nation's southwest, had landing gear failure when it attempted to touch down at Capital International Airport in Beijing.
On November 11, the landing equipment from an Air China flight from Beijing broke off when the plane was heading to Dalian International Airport in Northeast China's Liaoning Province.
The 30-kilogram landing gear smashed through the roof of a middle school classroom. Fortunately the plane finally managed to land.
A couple of weeks ago, an China Eastern A300 flight made a forced landing at Baiyun International Airport in Guangzhou, capital of South China's Guangdong Province, due to technical problems.
Growth a problem
The growing number of safety problems have been attributed to the robust growth of the industry.
According to CAAC statistics, by the end of last year, China had 1,155 regular air routes connecting 197 domestic and international cities.
In the first three quarters of the year, the total transport volume of the sector increased year-on-year by 43.9 per cent. At the same time, the passenger volume increased by 50.2 per cent, while cargo and mail were up 30.8 per cent.
Delays in flights and safety concerns top the list of passengers' complaints, CAAC Vice-Director Li Jun said at a press conference in July.
Some airlines have been blindly chasing profits, he said, which is also one of the causes of problems.
Insiders say the conflict between the industry's rapid development and relatively loose management is to blame.
Undoubtedly, in the past decade, CAAC has made additional efforts to establish a quality safety assessment and information system, accident proneness analysis and industry regulations.
Sun Ruishan, a professor at Civil Aviation University of China, said the advancement of the nation's civil aviation safety record is exceeding international trends.
But he pointed out that, with the rapid development of the industry and the continual growth of number of planes in the sky, the number of accidents could increase as the accident rate declines.
In the past, Sun also worked for the Research Institute of Civil Aviation Safety, which is responsible for preparing CAAC's annual safety report.
In a research report, safety expert Luo Yun from the China University of Geosciences compared the nation's major accident rate with international records.
From 1990 to 2000, the fatality rate of China's civil aviation is 2.813 per million flights, which is 1.5 times that of the international average level.
However, when looking at 1980 to 2000, the Chinese rate is 3.202, which is 1.9 times that of the international level.
"The further back we go, the more conspicuous the problem will be," Luo said.
He concluded that the 5-million-hour mark was based on the previous "super-short" safety cycle.
Reform 'land mines'
Many problems have popped up during the rapid development of the civil aviation industry. Airlines now operate excessive flights, which boosts the chances of disaster, experts said.
The ongoing reorganization and reform of airlines since 2002 have freed up local carriers to manage their business. But at the same time, it poses great challenges to safety management and supervision.
Civil aviation reform is often coupled with air disasters, said Director Yang.
Carriers' inflexible management systems, their poor legal awareness and the lack of risk-prevention mechanisms, among others, are "land mines" for the industry, insiders say.
The causes of most air crashes have not been released. Before a sound policy is mapped out, it is imperative to publicize the investigative results of accidents to the public, said an aviation expert from Civil Aviation Management Institute of China.
"In some sense, publicizing the real cause of the air crash is more important than punishing those responsible in order to prevent the reoccurrence of such tragedies," he said.