The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) announced on Tuesday, August 30, 2011 that it had suspended all flying privileges within China for the Korean pilot of a Juneyao Airlines (HO) Airbus A320-200, operating as Flight HO-1168, arriving from Harbin Taiping International Airport (HRB), who refused six requests from Shanghai air traffic control (ATC) to yield his landing position to a Qatar Airlines (QR) Boeing 777-300ER, operating as Flight QR-888 inbound from Doha International Airport (DOH) who had declared a Mayday emergency because his aircraft was critically low on fuel.
The incident, which some are calling “air rage”, or at the very least poor judgment in complying with international aircraft safety protocols, happened on Saturday, August 13, 2011 at about 11:20 p.m. local time as both aircraft were in a holding pattern involving 20 other aircraft circling over Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG) due to bad weather, as reported by the Vancouver Sun, China’s Forbidden News, the Associated Press, and other international media on Tuesday, August 30, 2011.
According to Wang Xiaoyan, a transportation analyst at China Minzu Securities, based in Beijing, the problem stemmed from airlines’ efforts to minimize the reserve fuel they carry, to increase their operating efficiency and cost savings.
A detailed video clip of the incident from China’s Forbidden News and a slide show also accompany this report.
While such an approach may bolster a carrier’s bottom line, it also erodes safety margins when there are weather related flight delays that can cause long wait times at already overcrowded airports, especially in China.
In this case, the CAAC, called the August 13 incident, a “serious violation of regulations”, and came down hard on the Juneyao Airlines pilot, who was a citizen of Korea, alerting the South Korean government about the case, and also suspending the copilot’s flight permit for six months.
In addition, showing that it apparently considers safety as the highest priority, the CAAC ordered Juneyao to reduce its flight capacity by 10 percent, temporarily barred it from carrying out plans to expand or hire any foreign flight staff, and demanded that all foreign flight crews of the airline also be required to participate in at least 40 hours of training on Chinese aviation regulations.
The Chinese media is reporting that both aircraft had exaggerated the urgency of their situations. However, the CAAC found that the Qatar Airlines Boeing 777-300ER, which eventually diverted to Shanghai’s other main airport, Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport (SHA), had 18 minutes of fuel remaining, and landed at 11:45 p.m. local time, for a total flight delay of 545 minutes, while the Juneyao Airlines jet would have been able to continue airborne for another 42 more minutes.
To make matters even more serious, reports said the two planes came dangerously close to colliding, before both landed safely.
The incident has raised concerns on several fronts.
According to the International Air Traffic Association (IATA), based in Montreal, Canada, congestion in China’s skies is adding to air traffic control problems, forcing detours, causing flight delays, and raising the risks of collision.
China may be having too much of a good thing in the form of unprecedented prosperity and growth, and an inability to keep up with expanding its air traffic control and pilot training infrastructures.
One measurement is the increase in civilian aircraft. A financial magazine published in China by Caixin Media reported that the number of civil aircraft is forecast to reach 2,600 by 2015, up from about 1,500 in 2010, and will almost triple to 4,360 by 2020.
Finally, China has challenges with pilots and pilot training. Experts say the country will need 10,000 or more new pilots in coming years to staff its growing fleets of aircraft, and also to replace the current generation of pilots as they retire.
Commercial aviation in China is indeed following an ancient proverb which reads, “May you live in interesting times.” Some consider that both a blessing and a curse.
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