Dark skies

The past week has produced bad news for Chinese flyers


Wreckage of the Asiana plane that crashed in San Francisco

One wonders if there weren’t a few public relations experts back in 2004 who cautioned Boeing against naming their new passenger jet the Dreamliner.

If so, there was another “I told you so” moment last week, as another fire, this time on a parked plane at London’s Heathrow airport, gave the newspapers another opportunity to headline that its proving a less a ‘dream’ for Boeing and more a ‘nightmare’.

The cause of the fire is still unclear, although it now seems that the fire did not originate in the aircraft’s lithium-ion batteries, as a series of other blazes did earlier this year (a situation that grounded Dreamliners for three months). Nevertheless it still capped a bad week for Boeing. Six days earlier one of its 777 planes crash-landed at San Francisco Airport with the loss of three lives. In this case pilot error, not a technical fault, was to blame. Asiana Airlines, the South Korean carrier, took the reputational hit this time.

What does all this have to do with China? Quite a lot, for the simple reason that almost half of the Asiana flight’s passengers were Chinese. The three fatalities were all Chinese too, 16 year-old girls from Zhejiang province on their way to California to attend summer school.

In the immediate aftermath of the accident, a South Korean TV anchor erred badly by expressing his relief that none of the victims were Korean. Asiana’s CEO Yoon Young-doo then published an open apology in several Chinese newspaper including the People’s Daily and the Zhejiang Daily. In it he promised a thorough investigation and greater training for his pilots (the pilot in control of the 777 at the time of the crash had landed the aircraft just eight times before).

“I express my deep condolences to the victims of the crash and their families. I promise to help the injured Chinese passenger make a speedy recovery,” he said, adding that he hoped his airline could “regain the trust of the Chinese people”. (Asiana makes 16% of it revenues flying Chinese passengers.)

Netizens, some of whom had expressed their grief by posting icons of lit candles, took the apology well, saying it was an honourable thing to do. Others added that, despite the accident, they would not be boycotting the airline because the other carriers that fly to the US are so expensive.

“I fly back to college [in the US] every year on Asiana,” wrote one weibo user. “What has happened is sad, but I will still use them.”

“I think China should also apologise! If wasn’t for the high ticket price [of Chinese airlines], they wouldn’t have had to go to Korea to transfer,” wrote another.

Direct flights from China to the United States cost some 40% more than flights on Asiana via Seoul, and given that many Chinese passengers already have to travel to Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou in order to get a US flight, that means flying via Seoul isn’t regarded as especially onerous.

Asiana flies to 21 Chinese cities daily and to 8 destinations in the US, making it the third largest foreign carrier in China, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Indeed, if a report from the website Flight Stats last week is to be believed, anything that allows people to avoid the airports in Beijing and Shanghai is a bonus.

Based on statistics compiled in June, the two airports are the worst in the world for delayed flights – only 18% of departures leave on time from Beijing – although New York’s LaGuardia just beats them both on flight cancellations.

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