Chinese airline grapples with a declining image

China's national airline has long been notorious for its poor service, inefficiency, and bureaucracy. And in recent months questions have mounted about its safety standards.

Two crashes and two hijackings in one year have made the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CCAC) a favorite target of abuse.

Habitual customers are used to waiting hours for their flight and being served inedible snacks by surly hostesses.

The facts are sobering. In April 1982, a CAAC British-built Trident Crashed into a mountainside near the southwestern resort town of Guilin, killing all 112 passengers and crew.

The ffollowing July five men attempted to hijack a CAAC plane on a domestic flight, but they were overcome by passengers and crew who fought them with bottles and mops.

On Christmas Eve, 23 people (including three Americans) were killed when a Sovietbuilt Ilyshin-18 crashed at Canton airport. And on May 5 a Trident was hijacked to South Korea by youths attempting to flee Taiwan.

The latest hijacking was highly embarrassing to China, as it forced the Peking goverment to hold its first direct contacts with South Korea. Two crew members were hurt in China's first known successful hijacking. The hijacking has resulted in many red faces and has led to speculation that CAAC director Shen Tu may be forced to resign.

Mr. Shen braved a barrage of questions from hostile foreign journalists recently when he admitted that Chinese flight crews were under orders to resist hijackers, "so long as passengers' lives are not endangered."

He did not explain how this feat could be accomplished, nor would he reveal how the hijackers smuggled their guns on board. All he would say was that they hid them in a container "that ordinary people could not imagine." According to one report, the hijackers declared their guns but said they were going to use them in a pistol-shooting contest.

The hijacking has resulted in a clampdown on lower officials traveling by air. Now only county-level officials and above are permitted to buy plane tickets without special authorization. But this ban is unlikely to last very long or to be effective in preventing further incidents, as rules are widely bent and buying airline tickets, like other scarce commodities, is often a matter of having the right connections.

Is all the criticism entirely justified, however?

Arguably, CAAC does not have too bad a safety record -- until recently it had had no hijackings and few crashes -- and it is hardly its fault that it has had to emerge in a very few years from the avionic stone age into the era of jumbo jets.

"Their pilots are basically very good." They are ultracautious about the weather, which is a good thing considering the lack of modern equipment at many Chinese airports," a Western airline representative said. "But CAAC's awful reputation is justified in may ways. They don't look after their equipment and they reuse spares. That applies to many airlines, especially in the third world."

The representative also accused CAAC of highly irresponsible behavior in barring foreign aircraft from flying above 30,000 feet to avoid clouds and turbulence. He said requests to fly above this level were invariably rejected, and that when pressed officials said this was because of military traffic.

"It's hard to believe China has military aircraft continually whizzing around at that height, but they are extremely stubborn about this. Their inflexibility could be dangerous, and it's also much less economic to fly at 30,000 rather than, say, 37,000 feet," the airline official said.

"Even so, CAAC is not the worst airline in the world. Aeroflot, for example, has far more accidents that we know about, and goodness knows how many that don't get reported."

Secrecy is also pervasive in China, and despite growing openness to the outside world, CAAC keeps a tight lid on information. But the huge influx of foreign tourists and businessmen in the last few years means that almost any flight will have at least one or two foreigners on board, making an accident virtually impossible to conceal.

China had virtually no tourism industry until the late 1970s. It is still reeling from the shock of the millions of foreigners and overseas Chinese who come here each year.

CAAC started to modernize its fleet after President Nixon's historic visit to Peking in 1972, when it bought 10 Boeing 707s in a deal that surprised the world. It has since purchased four Boeing 747 jumbo jets, of which three are already in service, and it recently took delivery of five of the 10 Boeing 737s it ordered last November.

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