China low-fuel landing row reflects growing pains

August 30, 2011 - 11:45 PM

SHANGHAI (AP) — Aviation authorities have ordered stiff punishment for a local airline whose pilot refused to yield to a Qatar Airways jet requesting to land because it was short of fuel, highlighting growing concerns over safety in China's overcrowded skies.

The case was the latest to raise concern about China's increasingly busy airports, as traffic controllers struggle to keep up and airlines scramble for pilots, many of whom lack experience, analysts said Tuesday.

The China Civil Aviation Administration, or CAAC, deemed the Aug. 13 incident, a "serious violation of regulations."

In a notice Tuesday, it said it had revoked the license of the pilot of a Juneyao Airlines flight on Aug. 13, who refused six requests from Shanghai air traffic control to give way after the Qatar Airlines jet from Doha issued a "mayday" call seeking priority in landing because it was running short of fuel.

Reports at the time said the aircraft came dangerously close to collision before both landed safely.

The Qatar jet, among 20 circling over Shanghai's Pudong International Airport due to bad weather, made an urgent request to land at the city's other main airport, Hongqiao International.

But the Juneyao Airlines pilot argued that his aircraft was also low on fuel.

The CAAC said results of its investigation found that the Juneyao jet had enough fuel to stay airborne for 42 more minutes, while the Qatar jet had only enough fuel for 18 more minutes of flight, it said.

Chinese state media reports said both pilots had exaggerated the urgency of their situations, but the question of whether the Qatar aircraft had violated any regulations would be directed to Qatar's air authority, it said.

The problem partly stems from airlines' efforts to minimize the fuel they carry, said Wang Xiaoyan, a transportation analyst at China Minzu Securities, based in Beijing.

"I would say the punishment from CAAC is quite fair, Juneyao should be responsible as it almost caused an accident," Wang said.

But congestion in China's skies also is adding to air traffic control problems, forcing detours, delays and raising the risks of collision, the International Air Traffic Association has warned.

According to statistics reported by the financial magazine Caixin, the number of civil aircraft is forecast to reach 2,600 by 2015, up from about 1,500 last year, and to jump to 4,360 by 2020.

Airports have proliferated as have smaller regional airlines as passenger numbers have soared. A year ago, 42 people died in the crash of a Henan Airlines flight making a night landing in a remote town in northeastern China.

Adding to the confusion is China's own difficulties with pilots and pilot training. Experts say the country will need tens of thousands of new pilots in coming years to man its growing fleets of aircraft and also to replace the current generation of pilots as they retire.

So far, China's overall safety rate is "respectable," says Richard Aboulafia, vice president of Teal Group Corp., a consultancy. But he notes that "Given China aviation's congestion and extremely high growth rates, there's bound to be a few improperly trained pilots and dubious runway procedures."

Still, flight crews are stretched to the limit by manpower shortages. In 2008, China Eastern Airline saw disruptions to more than 20 flights in southwestern China's Yunnan province by pilots who either turned back midway through their flights or landed them and then took off again without letting passengers disembark.

The CAAC permanently barred Juneyao's pilot, a Korean citizen, from flying within China and said it would notify the South Korean government of the case. The copilot's flight permit was suspended for six months, it said.

CAAC ordered Juneyao to reduce its flight capacity by 10 percent and said the carrier would be temporarily barred from carrying out plans for expansion or hiring any foreign flight staff.

All foreign flight crews of the airline also will be required to participate in at least 40 hours of training on Chinese aviation regulations, it said.

Shanghai-based Juneyao, one of several private carriers in an aviation market dominated by state-run airlines, said it would fire the pilot responsible for the dispute and ground the co-pilot for six months.

It said that regardless of the circumstances surrounding the incident, it recognized it was at fault and apologized.

Originally founded in 1991 as a charter service, Juneyao began operating commercial flights out of Shanghai in 2006.

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AP researcher Fu Ting contributed.