Why the China Eastern Crash Is Such a Shock to the Country

Yout’s still far too early to know for certain what caused China Eastern Flight 5735 to crash into hillside in southwestern China’s Guangxi province on Monday, but videos emerging on social media of a huge fire and smouldering wreckage don’t bode well for its 123 passengers and nine crew.

According to flight-tracking data, the Boeing 737 89P left Kunming around 13:11 p.m. EST. It was supposed to arrive in Guangzhou about 15:05 p.m. On Monday, China’s strongman President Xi Jinping ordered an “all out” rescue effort although state media has said the 600 emergency responders dispatched have found no sign of survivors.

Minds are already turning to what caused the plane to come down just southwest of the Chinese city of Wuzhou and what it means for China’s airlines. As of April 2020, China overtook the U.S. to have the world’s biggest aviation industry, which those in the industry hoped to be profitable again this year, despite being badly hit by the pandemic.

“It’ll be a huge shock to them,” David Newbery, a retired Hong Kong flight captain and accredited aircraft accident investigator, tells TIME. “The Chinese are a bit paranoid about air safety and will go ballistic at this one without a doubt.”

China has set an example by how it turned around its safety record in the airline industry. There were a number of tragic crashes during the 1990s that killed 492 people. Beijing sought help from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which provided advice and guidance about how to regulate American aviation operations.

China’s last major airline crash was in 2010, when an Embraer ERJ-190LR operated by Henan Airlines crashed while trying to land on a foggy runway, catching fire and killing 44 of the 96 people on board. Last year, China’s airlines recorded 100 million continuous hours of safe flight—the longest of any nation’s civilian aviation industry, according to state news wire Xinhua. That said, it has had its share of aviation tragedy; two thirds of the 239 passengers and crew on Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370—which vanished March 8, 2014, over the southern Indian Ocean—were Chinese.

Today, China’s own aviation regulations are even more stringent than the FAA’s. After the March 2019 accident involving a 737 Max 8 aircraft, Ethiopian Airlines crashed, Chinese regulators ground 96 planes owned by Chinese airlines within twenty hours. This includes 14 planes that were operated by China Eastern. Despite 737 Max aircraft getting the FAA green light to fly again last May, China waited until the winter before it allowed the planes to fly in the country—the last major market to do so.

The aircraft involved in Monday’s crash was not a Max. The Max had been in service for over six years, and it had been delivered from Boeing to China Eastern, a Shanghai-based state carrier. The single aisle, twin-engine Boeing 737 is one of the world’s most popular aircraft for short and medium-haul flights.

Neither China Eastern nor Boeing have officially commented on the crash, but the latter’s shares fell 7.8% in premarket trading in New York upon news of the tragedy.

It remains to be determined how much investigation will take place following the crash. Newbery says that in the past there has been a tendency in China to attribute blame to one scapegoat, draw a line under an incident and move on, rather than adopting a “Just Culture” system, which holistically examines all contributing factors and shares accountability across an organization.

“Air accidents are nearly always hugely complex and just to seize upon an individual and punish them quite often covers up systemic problems, which aren’t addressed,” he says. “Things like fatigue, pilots who are poorly trained on badly designed aeroplanes in weather conditions that were not conducive to flight safety quite often have bearings on accidents.”

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