China suffered its worst air disaster in 12 years on Monday when a passenger jet crashed into a mountain in the south of the country. All 132 people on board were killed when the tragedy occurred in Wuzhou in Guangxi province.
The China Eastern flight was travelling from Kunming to Guangzhou at an altitude of about 30,000 feet when it suddenly plunged to the ground in less than two minutes, according to tracking data. Video footage shot by dashcams from nearby vehicles showed the aircraft plummeting almost vertically nose-first out of the sky.
Rescuers quickly arrived at the site but there were no signs of survivors, with China Eastern switching its website to the black and white format deployed in the aftermath of fatal accidents.
Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, was “shocked” by news of the disaster, according to the state media, and he ordered an immediate investigation.
The initial reports on the accident have revived safety concerns about the Boeing 737 fleet, following fatal accidents for Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines flights that also crashed nose-down in 2018 and 2019. But the China Eastern jet is part of the NG, or Next Generation, series of the 737 fleet that preceded the controversial 737 Max.
The NG, which has different engines and different systems to the Max, is regarded as one of the safest aircraft ever made, with only 11 fatal accidents out of more than 7,000 planes delivered since 1997, according to aviation consultancy Cirium.
“For a plane that is seven years old and has been in commercial service since 2015, it seems less likely, although not impossible, that the cause would be a design or manufacturing issue,” noted Cai Von Rumohr, an analyst at Cowen, an investment bank. China Eastern was reported to have grounded its entire 737-800 fleet of more than 100 aircraft in response to the crash.
Boeing then issued a statement, saying that it was monitoring the media reports and working on gathering more information about the disaster. However, it will be concerned about the commercial implications in China, where its planes make up more than half of the commercial jetliners in operation.
The disaster might complicate the reintroduction of the Max series, for instance, jeopardising sales in Boeing’s second-largest market. The company was counting on an accelerated delivery schedule of as many as 500 Max aircraft this year as part of its bid to recover from billions of dollars of losses since the two accidents over three years ago.
Regulators in China were the first from a major aviation market to ground the Max following the two crashes, which killed 346 people (see WiC444). They have also been some of the last to approve its return. Although the type was recertified in December, the grounded Max aircraft needs to be modified and cockpit crew have to be trained for new procedures before the controversial model can feature in China’s commercial schedules again.
Earlier this week aerospace analyst John Strickland queried the concerns that this week’s accident could create new delays. “The NG is a completely different aircraft from the 737 Max, which has just gone through a rigorous recertification process,” he told Bloomberg. “I wouldn’t expect today’s crash to have any bearing on the Max’s return to service in China.”
But speculation that the disaster would still damage Boeing’s reputation in China was a factor in a drop of as much as 8% in its shares in pre-market trading in the US on Monday. “Given [Boeing’s] problems with the 737 Max, there is some chance that consumers may not want to fly on a 737 until the cause of the China Eastern crash is determined not to be a design or manufacturing issue,” Cowen’s Cai von Rumohr noted. “Hence, isolating the cause of the crash will be critical.”
In the meantime, one of the black boxes was recovered on Wednesday. Chinese authorities have invited the US to take part in the investigation but the US National Transportation Safety Board said it had not decided if investigators would travel to China because of quarantine requirements.
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