Explaining China’s crash

Why Henan Airlines accident could point to a dangerous trend

Explaining China’s crash

Plane wreck in Yichun

It is not a line-up that China’s air safety bosses will have wanted to be part of. But a major crash in Yichun in Heilongjiang province at the end of August put them in uncomfortable company, alongside Colombia, Nepal and the Democratic Republic of Congo. All four countries have reported fatalities in the last three weeks, in a sudden cluster of accidents.

The likelihood of being killed in an airline accident is still slight. According to Ascend, an aviation consultancy, your chances are not much different to winning the national lottery.

Not that this will serve as much comfort to Yichun, a small city in mountains popular with holidaymakers fleeing the summer heat. It had an awful August, after also making headlines when an explosion at a fireworks factory killed at least 20 locals. And now it has to shoulder the country’s first major aviation accident for almost six years, with 42 passengers reported dead.

Nor will the behaviour of the local police (who beat up journalists arriving to cover the story) have helped the town’s reputation. Subsequent press outrage led to an abject apology (“I am a brute, and I hope journalists, who have a higher education, can understand this”) from the police chief.

But the Yichun crash is having wider reverberations. Henan Airlines, which operated the disaster flight, has been told it must revert to its old name – Kunpeng Airlines – after the Henanese provincial government grew anxious about the reputational fallout. It has also raised renewed concerns about the country’s breakneck construction of new airports. WiC has written before on this topic (WiC15), warning that many of the new facilities look destined for white elephant status.

But concerns about commercial sustainability have done little to slow the building programmes. Heilongjiang is a decent example: it now has nine airports, with plans for another three in the next five years, according to Xinhua.

The problem is that the bulk of China’s passenger and freight traffic is concentrated through the larger hubs. Most of the remaining airports are operating way below capacity, with about half welcoming less than four flights a day. Yichun saw just 10,000 passengers in its first year of operations, or a little over a fifteenth of its intended capacity.

The passenger shortfalls then lead to commercial pressures to find airlines willing to touch down on underutilised runways. With the bigger carriers uninterested, local bureaucrats have cut low-fare deals with smaller regional airlines. But, as the Economic Observer points out, profits can then only be made on the lowest of operating costs. This combination – a rapid expansion of airport capacity, and corner-cutting flying to utilise it – has led to the recent bout of safety concerns. Can the flights generate sufficient return for safety and engineering standards to be met?

The unfortunate Henan Airlines aircraft is said to have been part of one such deal, flying on all 10 routes connecting Heilongjiang’s capital Harbin with the province’s smaller cities (including Yichun) three times a week.

Late last week the CAAC insisted that the airport in Yichun meets national safety standards. Investigations into the causes of the accident are ongoing. But the fact that the crash occurred after dark is also being linked to the commercial context. On the thin margins available to the carriers, flights to and from places like Yichun often need to be made at night. The operators cannot get access to daytime departure (or arrival) slots at busier airports elsewhere.

Revealingly, China Southern (the country’s largest airline by fleet size) had long decided not to fly to Yichun after daylight hours. A report now circulating on the internet cites the airport’s geography, runway lighting and local wind patterns as factors for not flying after dark.

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