The not so friendly skies

A new airline is launched but air traffic problems remain

The not so friendly skies

Landing on the roof of the world

With China’s high-speed rail sector struggling against a litany of negative headlines, the country’s aviation industry has been basking in a relative glow by comparison.

So the last thing airline executives wanted was a major safety scare to blight their good run.

But that’s what they got, courtesy of local airline Juneyao and international carrier Qatar Airways. In what media have been reporting as a case of “air rage”, pilots from the two carriers got into dispute above Shanghai, when Juneyao refused to let the Qatari aircraft land ahead of it, despite instructions from air traffic control to give way.

Controllers ordered the Juneyao plane to give way six times in seven minutes, according to press reports. But they looked on horrified as the flight crew then ignored Qatar Airways mayday signal (for an emergency landing due to low fuel) and came in to land themselves instead.

The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) deemed it a “serious violation of regulations”.

In its defence, Juneyao said that its own aircraft was also low on fuel, having been required to circle above Pudong airport in bad weather. State broadcaster CCTV then challenged this, saying Juneyao had much more than the “four minutes of fuel” remaining that it claimed. A CAAC investigation then confirmed that the Airbus A320 had the gas to remain airborne for another 42 minutes, more than the Qatari’s 18 minutes of further flight.

With Juneyao deemed to be in the wrong, the airline apologised. The penalty: flight frequencies cut by 10% for the next three months.

Perhaps it helped national pride that the erring pilot – licence revoked, by the way – was a South Korean. According to the Shanghai Daily, the pilot is now banned from flying in China for life. (CAAC officials may currently be passing round Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers where the safety record of Korean pilots qualifies for a full chapter of debate. The author notes that, at its lowest point in 1997, Korean Air’s loss rate – i.e. accidents – was 17 times higher than United Airlines.)

It is almost a year since China had its last crash, of a Henan Airlines plane in Yichun which killed 43 passengers. The incident confirmed the regulator in its view that no new licences should be issued to airline start-ups, says Southern Metropolis Weekly. That makes it unusual that CAAC recently gave its approval for a new carrier – Tibet Airlines – to take to the skies.

For those minded to trivia, Southern Metropolis Weekly describes the new airline as operating (take-offs and landings) from the highest altitude in the world.

Why the change of heart? Provinces all over China lobby for the set-up of their own carriers, seeing it as means to boost GDP and bring in investment. But Tibet is a special case with extra political sensitivity, and Beijing is often ready to show a little more largesse than usual. The approval of the airline’s operating certificate looks like the latest example (in issue 97 we wrote about the promotion of a Tibetan mineral water brand, 5100).

Tibet Airlines began flights last month, to a small group of large cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing. Tibetan business interests and local government entities own 70%, with national flag carrier Air China holding the remainder.

In other aviation news, 21CN Business Herald reports that a further consequence of July’s bullet train crash in Wenzhou is a renewed interest in the building of airports. China already has 175 airports but it seems that the CAAC is now approving the construction of 70 more. All this despite findings from the National Development and Reform Commission that 97% of regional airports suffer financial losses (see WiC15).

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