A fatal plane crash and a scandal over pilot records mar China's air safety record.
China's civil aviation safety is under scrutiny following a fatal crash in August and confirmation that 192 pilots had been found to have falsified their work histories.
The accident involving a Henan Airlines aircraft at Lindu Airport, which serves Yichun City in Heilongjiang province, prompted the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) to embark on a safety audit. The Brazilian-made Embraer ERJ190 aircraft overshot the runway on 24 August after landing in thick fog and broke into two on impact. Of the 91 passengers on board, 42 died. This was the first crash involving a Chinese airline since 2004.
In a statement the CAAC said investigations into the backgrounds of working pilots revealed that 192 had misrepresented themselves with fake resumes. False entries of flying hours and endorsements were made in the pilots' log books, which record the number of hours flown.
CAAC did not identify the airlines the pilots work for. The regulatory body had lined up six teams to carry out checks on airlines across the country after the crash, covering safety standards, maintenance audits, competence of personnel in the relevant sectors, implementation, and enforcement of regulations and policies.
Investigations started with Henan Airlines and its parent company, Shenzhen Airlines, a budget carrier based in the booming city of Shenzhen.
An aviation official in Shenzhen who spoke to E&T on condition of anonymity said most of the culprits were former military pilots and 103 of them were working for a budget carrier. Shenzhen Airlines is the only budget carrier based there.
'What is surprising is that the entries in the log books were not verified with the authorities before the pilots were hired,' the official commented.
He pointed out that when qualifications of pilots are not checked, it poses a threat to the safety of the aircraft and passengers' lives.
The 40-year old captain of the Henan Airlines crash was previously with Shenzhen Airlines. He resigned after he was demoted from captain on the 737-800 to first officer but was given the position of a captain when he joined Henan Airlines.
Calls to the office of Shenzhen Airlines president Feng Gang went unanswered. Flag carrier Air China, which holds a 61 per cent stake in Shenzhen Airlines, declined to comment.
However, a spokesman for Shanghai Airlines said it was impossible for airlines to verify every pilot's resume: 'China's aviation industry is so big and growing every day. It makes it difficult for the regulatory body to keep track of all the pilots' qualifications and flying histories.'
According to CAAC director general Li Jiaxiang most of the pilots were hired between March 2008 and June 2009 when China's domestic civil aviation was expanding rapidly.
'These airlines were desperate for pilots to meet their expansion requirements and even resorted to hiring them from South America,' Li said. He added that action had been taken against pilots found with false flying histories.
What is surprising is that these pilots were not fired but allowed to proceed with refresher courses, which paves the way for them to return to their previous positions.
Questions have also surfaced about the safety of Lindu Airport, which is located in a forested valley and prone to thick fog.
Li Jian, a deputy director at CAAC, said the airport meets all safety standards including those for night operations.
Li Jian denied suggestions that construction of the airport was shoddy because its budget was cut midway through the work. Lindu Airport was one of 40 built between 2000 and 2009.
Hardly a week into the safety audit the port wing of a China Express Air Bombardier CRJ 200 regional jet scraped the runway on landing at Guiyang Airport in south China. The airline was grounded for a week by CAAC and ordered to carry out safety checks on its fleet.
China's air safety was arguably the world's worst for much of the 1990s, riddled with human errors, poor maintenance of aircraft and gross disregard by the authorities of shortcomings. Chinese airline fleets then were composed mostly of ageing locally-made Yuns or Russian-made aircraft.
Realising the need to reform the civil aviation sector and enhance safety, CAAC under the then leadership of Yang Yangyuan took a bold step forward in 1997.
Yang was candid when he spoke openly of China's weaknesses in aviation management and safety while he sought help outside China.
He was instrumental in establishing programmes for the regulators and airlines to learn from their counterparts in the US. Help from the government and OEMs was sought in the drafting of new safety regulations.
Training for pilots, engineers, air traffic controllers and government inspectors was upgraded.
The entry level for cadet pilots to gain admission into flying schools was raised, and those not fluent in English had to go through a six-month course before they could start their training.
Boeing and Airbus concluded agreements to train Chinese safety managers.
In an unprecedented move, the Chinese government allowed International Air Transport Association specialists to carry out safety audit on all its airlines and release the findings.