China has maintained an impressive air travel safety record despite some very colorful anecdotes and one or two unfortunate mishaps. The data are especially noteworthy for a massive country growing at warp speed near or above 10 percent annually.
This article began as an excuse to showcase an old, entertaining piece by former Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent Uli Schmetzer entitled "Near the Twilight Zone: All Aboard Air China's Flight 173." In the process, it evolved into a short, thankfully reassuring look at the safety of Chinese air travel.
Air China Flight 173
In his 1992 article, Schmetzer vividly, if sometimes morbidly, describes the colorful sightings aboard Air China Flight 173 from Sydney to Beijing. The passengers of note include a man who is led to his seat in handcuffs and a straitjacket. There is widespread controversy among the passengers, including two neurosurgeons, about whether the elderly man lying across Row 16 is alive or dead. The plane gets repaired on the runway before takeoff by two "almighty bangs" to its underbelly with a sledgehammer. During flight, the crew is mostly pre-occupied with learning their fates from a palm-reading passenger. In another disturbing piece, the pilots somehow manage to lock themselves out of the cockpit mid-flight only to resort to breaking down the door with an ax to get back to the controls.
While Flight 173 regularly landed late but safely, passengers on a domestic flight on regional Henan Airlines on the foggy night of August 23, 2010 were not so fortunate. The plane crashed outside the city of Yichun in Heilongjiang Province killing 42 passengers and injuring 54 others and sparking new fears about the safety of Chinese air travel.
China's Air Safety Record
Despite the tragic outcome, the Henan Airlines flight is also noteworthy for bringing to light China's air safety record. In fact, the data and industry sources suggest that China is actually a pretty safe place to fly. Until the crash, China had maintained an air safety record of 2,102 days, or more than five years, without accidents.
Even Schmetzer notes that foreign airline officials attested to the good safety record of Air China. According to the website PlaneCrashInfo.com, Air China earns a 26 percent above (better than) average accident rate, which looks to compare reasonably well with other major international carriers, including: Air France (79 percent worse than average), Cathay Pacific ( 31 percent better), Japan Airlines (JAL, 0 percent better / worse) Singapore Airlines (101 percent worse), and Virgin Atlantic (9 percent better). The "accident rate" is determined by the percentage above or below the average accident rate for 87 major carriers. An airline industry consultancy, GCW Consulting, considers China's "overall air safety record" one of the world's best for the past six years.
China's air record is all-the-more impressive when you consider the many factors working against it. China had the second highest passenger kilometers flown per year in 2008 with 251 million km, coming in behind the US (1.3 million km) and ahead of the UK (228 million km). To sustain its rapid growth rate, China has built 40 airports in the last decade. To hold onto a share of China's lucrative air travel market, Chinese provinces were hastily leasing old Soviet-built planes and sometimes even relying on Russian crews in the 1990's. As in other industries, Chinese airlines have struggled to build and maintain a professional, well-trained workforce of management, staff, and maintenance personnel.
Air Travel Safety
Rather than relying solely on China's air safety record, passengers can also take comfort in knowing the overall odds of being ensnared in a fatal airline accident are decidedly in their favor. According to PlaneCrashInfo.com, "Aviation accidents are extremely rare, with the probability of a passenger being killed on a single flight at approximately eight million-to-one. If a passenger boarded a flight at random, once a day, everyday, it would statistically be over 21,000 years before he or she would be killed. "
Fortunately then, despite some disturbing anecdotal evidence, between China's good air safety record and the general rarity of serious plane accidents, it seems that business and vacation travelers on Chinese airlines can rest reasonably assured that they will arrive at their next destination safe and sound.