Beijing's reassuring response to an air crash

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 September, 2010, 12:00am

The fatal crash of a passenger plane in Heilongjiang province last week set off alarm bells. Mainland aircraft safety is a touchy subject because of its record during the 1990s, which gave the industry a bad name. There has also been concern, fully justified in some cases, that the infrastructure boom has been steaming ahead without proper regard for safeguards. But it would be wrong to tar today's airline sector with that same brush; there have been dramatic improvements in the past decade that make it among the soundest in the world.

That record suffered a blow last Tuesday when word emerged that 42 people among the 96 on board the Henan Airlines flight had been killed as it tried to land in fog at the small regional airport in Yichun. Before this tragedy, there had been no serious plane accident in the country for six years. Authorities, well aware of the need to preserve the industry's reputation, launched an inquiry, sacked local aviation officers and demanded urgent inspections of all the nation's aircraft, airports and safety mechanisms. The General Administration of Civil Aviation suspended the carrier's flights.

This response is evidence of progress. It is not what would have happened a decade ago, before the restructuring of the industry that was so crucial to putting its past behind it. The fleet has been modernised, demand has increased dramatically and mainland airlines are now competing for global business with their international counterparts. They have realised the importance of adopting the operating and safety standards that are needed to assure reputations and maintain business.

Aircraft manufacturers have long known this. Boeing and Airbus, the world's biggest producers, rely on the safety of their planes to drive their companies forward. With China being their biggest customer and the fastest growing market, their expertise, standards and expectations have helped pull the mainland's air safety record from disastrous to excellent. The government has provided a firm backbone with strict controls that ensure airlines have well-trained and experienced crew.

For all the regulations, though, accidents can never be completely avoided. The inquiry into last week's crash involving a Brazilian-made Embraer plane will confirm that. There are concerns that smaller carriers and regional airports off the most-travelled routes do not have the best possible safety levels. Perhaps the rush to build infrastructure - airports have been high on the agenda for many city governments - has not been accompanied by as much concern for safeguards as there should have been. Mechanical expertise with lesser-known aircraft may be wanting.

The aviation industry is expanding at a dramatic rate. China has more than 1,300 passenger jets, and the fleet is expected to double this decade. Air traffic is predicted to grow 13 per cent this year to 260 million passengers. The government knows well the importance of aviation to growth, development and image.

There is no doubt that flying is one of the least dangerous ways to travel. The risk of an accident can be calculated using several statistical methods, but each arrives at the same conclusion: boarding a plane is far safer than getting into a car. Despite this, the crash of one of the world's more than 23,000 commercial aircraft - which carry over 2 billion people a year - always prompts searching questions, which Beijing is rightly asking. Given the dramatic turnaround in safety standards, we can expect that, as a result, getting on a plane on the mainland should now be even safer.