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Out of China: The hard way to overcome fear of flying

PEKING - Call it theory-laden flying. Just the previous week, the International Airline Passenger Association (IAPA) had warned people not to fly in China. 'Even if you're enough of a daredevil to fly in Colombia on a stormy night, don't fly in China,' it had announced. So it was a brave woman who set off for Peking's airport that morning, planning to take the 90-minute flight to Harbin in China's far north-east.

It was an average Chinese domestic flight for a country which, according to the IAPA, is suffering enormous shortages of pilots, engineers, attendants, ground crews and mechanics. And the air traffic control system has had to cope with a 50 per cent growth in passenger transport volume over two years. There have been eight fatal crashes in the past 21 months - all that and 10 hijackings to Taiwan last year as well.

That morning not one domestic flight left on time. When the one to Harbin was finally called, the shuttle bus itself should have carried an IAPA warning for near-misses - we screeched to a halt as a Boeing 747 taxied in front.

Safely delivered to the plane's steps, pandemonium broke out as passengers elbowed each other out of the way in the rush to stow oversized cabin baggage. Then there was the challenge of where to sit; my boarding card did not assign a seat number.

A second-row vacancy provided a fine vantage point from which to check out the IAPA's assessment of airline cabin service 'with Chinese characteristics'. During take-off, two stewardesses sat in front. Once airborne, they stayed there; one reading a newspaper and the other asleep. As the plane reached its flying altitude they were joined by one of the three uniformed men from the cockpit. He sat down, ate a tangerine and decided it was time for a nap.

For most of the passengers, safety was less of a concern than sustenance. The food trolley took its time, but eventually lunch was served: a large packet of egg roll biscuits each and a sachet of strange brown sweets. This did not impress my fellow travellers. Nor, having munched their way through the dry biscuits, did they acquiesce when the stewardesses announced that 'regulations' meant that further beverages would not be served. The Chinese people's revolutionary spirit was much in evidence.

Landings, like take-offs, are the most exhilarating part of flying on Chinese airlines. One friend recently, on an international Chinese flight, was alarmed to see the rear door being opened as the aircraft started its final run to take-off. Four stewardesses repeatedly tried to slam it shut properly, much as one might a car door.

Landings can be alarming because once the aircraft is within sight of the ground, many Chinese passengers are out of their seats, unloading the overhead lockers and making their way towards the exits, despite the best efforts of the cabin crew to sit them back down.

All this is now supposed to change. Three weeks ago the new head of the Civil Aviation Adminstration of China (CAAC), Chen Guangyi, announced: 'Serious flying accidents and air piracy must be put to an end.' Last year 120 people were punished for flying accidents, including three pilots who were discharged and 68 who had their licences suspended or downgraded, he said. Hainan Airlines, said the official China Daily, was punished for letting unlicensed personnel fly passenger jets.

Security at airports, which is cursory at best, will be stepped up in an effort to discourage hijackers. More pilots will be properly trained, though there will still be a shortage for many years. Deregulation of the industry, which caused a rush of new airlines, will be reined in. Flight punctuality will be a priority.

CAAC has just announced that if a flight is delayed more than two hours, beverages must be provided. After four hours passengers 'must have somewhere to rest'. Once in the air, customers are promised 'more tasteful' food. Meals must be hot and served on a plate.

Meanwhile, China's flight paths may be crowded but for the new rich who have nearly everything, the Silver Swallow Ultralights Company of Shashi City, Hubei province, at the weekend announced plans to manufacture 100 super-light airplanes this year.

The company's general manager said that, at around pounds 40,000 each, they were affordable by many wealthy Chinese. And these planes, he added, can be flown after just 30 hours of training.