Chinese jet crashes after mid-air blast

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The Independent Online
AN INTERNAL flight crashed near the eastern Chinese city of Wenzhou yesterday, killing all 61 people on board and hindering the country's attempts to improve its reputation for air safety.

The aircraft, a Russian-made Tupolev 154, was the same make as the aircraft involved in China's worst civil air disaster, in June 1994, when 160 people were killed.

The China Southwest Airlines flight had nearly completed its journey from the western city of Chengdu to Wenzhou, in Zhejiang province. One report said there was a midair explosion before the plane came down near the town of Ruian, in the late afternoon.

An official in the Communist Party office at Wenzhou airport said the aircraft was in radio contact as it descended to 1,000 metres. "Afterward it came down 700 metres and contact was lost." Another report said the plane had crashed in a hilly area, injuring at least two people on the ground.

Since China's mid-1994 air disaster, the sixth domestic crash in less than two years, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) had put considerable effort into improving the country's abysmal internal air record. In contrast, Air China's international civil airline has never suffered a crash.

Many older domestic planes have been retired, air traffic control improved and a string of better-equipped airports have opened. Until yesterday, there had been only one air disaster since June 1994, that of a Boeing 737, which crash-landed in May 1997 at Shenzhen airport.

For the past two weeks, China's civil airlines have been working at maximum capacity to cope with the new year, as millions of people return home. Extra flights had been laid on around the country.

Investigators are likely to focus first on the air-worthiness of the aircraft; four of the eight civilian air crashes since July 1992 have involved Soviet or Russian manufactured planes.

As well as aircraft quality, China is trying to upgrade air traffic control systems and yesterday announced a 10 billion yuan (pounds 750m) investment in its network "to reduce traffic hazards and accidents". The plan involves setting up 10 principal traffic management centres to replace the current 37 smaller centres, said the CAAC. It is scheduled for completion by 2010.

Chen Xuhua, director of the CAAC's Air Traffic Management Bureau, said: "As a result of increased investment in safety projects, Chinese airlines did not have a single accident because of control factors in the 1.5 million flights completed last year." All but three of the busiest air routes are still controlled by the air force, but within two years air traffic control on another 21 routes will be transferred to the CAAC.

Last night, the CAAC was giving out no information on the crash, but the official Xinhua news agency did report basic details about the disaster. Until five years ago, China often withheld any mention of air crashes from its media for several days, and has been criticised for lack of co-operation with foreign aircraft manufacturers after crashes.