A TEAM of British Aerospace investigators is flying from London to help determine the cause of China's latest aviation disaster.
The British Aerospace 146 Whisper jet careered off the runway in the northwestern town of Yinchuan in Ningxia province, killing 59 people and raising more questions about an airline industry experts believe cannot keep pace with the country's passenger boom.
British Aerospace immediately defended the Whisperjet's safety record, describing it as ''exemplary''.
Ian Watson, director of regional operations, said: ''We have some people in the country already who have knowledge of how to handle an accident investigation, and two accident specialists are on their way from London.'' The age of the aircraft was not known, but at least 16 of the planes are operated by Chinese airlines.
It is a four-engined jet capable of carrying 128 passengers and used for short-haul flights of up to 2,500 kilometres.
A number of disasters last year - four in nearly as many months - left 310 dead, fuelling criticism of safety standards in Chinese aviation.
Western experts have accused China's airlines of taking shortcuts in aircraft maintenance to keep pace with a boom in tourism and trade.
In the 1980s, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) split into nine regional airlines. By late 1992, China had nine more airlines owned by local governments and four independent carriers.
Many have bought aged planes and employed relatively inexperienced pilots from the former Soviet bloc.
A lack of co-ordination between airports, control towers and aircraft also contributed to last year's spate of accidents, experts said, which brought pledges from CAAC to improve safety standards.
Last week China halted the establishment of new airline companies to improve air safety and tighten control over expansion in civil aviation.
China has sought to speed up its notoriously slow reporting of air crashes and to build airports and modernise its ageing aircraft fleets.
''Unfortunately, CAAC tends to go on hold when these things happen,'' said the country manager of a major Western airline with routes to China. ''This is less than helpful.
''CAAC has placed a renewed focus on safety this year, but this is not an area you can change overnight.
''If passenger demand rises this fast, whatever systems they have in place - whether safety systems or, say, passenger services - are bound to come under considerable pressure.''