The aviation industry has become so safe that any crash immediately attracts global attention. China’s has been especially so for more than a decade, so the slamming of an Eastern Airlines Boeing 737-800 into a mountain in the southern Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region with the loss of all 132 people on board has generated sorrow at home and around the world. Speculation abounds given the manner in which it plunged to Earth, but nothing is to be gained from guesswork. What matters is a swift and thorough investigation to find the cause that can bring about changes to prevent another such disaster. World leaders quickly joined President Xi Jinping in expressing shock and our thoughts are with the relatives of the victims. In keeping with the nation’s high air safety standards, the airline has indefinitely grounded its more than 100 737-800s and the Civil Aviation Administration of China has implemented a two-week nationwide inspection of all parts of the industry. It includes airlines, airport operators, air traffic control and flight training institutions. Crucial to the investigation are the two “black box” voice and data recorders; the former has already been pulled from the wreckage and is being analysed and could provide vital clues as to why the plane plummeted to the ground from 30,000 feet in just minutes during the flight from Kunming to Guangzhou. The sharp drop in altitude had been noticed by the Guangdong flight information region, but it was unable to make contact with the crew. These are extraordinary circumstances in 21st century aviation, the protective features built into aircraft and on-ground measures making flight the safest means of mass transportation. China’s record has in the past decade been especially good, passenger airlines up to February 19 having operated for 100 million hours over 137 months without a major accident, the best in the world. Flight data suggests China Eastern plane pulled out of one dive before crash Monday’s fatal accident was the first since August 24, 2010, when 44 of the 96 people on a Henan Airlines jet died when it crashed while trying to land in Jilin province. But such a record came about only as a result of tragic lessons. Crashes with mass casualties were frequent during the 1980s and 1990s, giving the nation a reputation for having lax safety standards and poorly maintained aircraft. The turning point came in 2002 when two major accidents happened within a month, one over South Korea and the other over Dalian, with a total loss of 234 lives. Shocked out of its complacency, the aviation industry embarked on a drive to implement and enforce strict safety rules and modernise its fleet. Safety demands that the cause of the latest accident is quickly found and changes are made to prevent a repeat. Protecting lives, in the air and on the ground, has to be paramount.