Coming into Haikou airport on Hainan, China's tropical island paradise in the South China Sea, the plane flew so low over the mango trees that its wheels almost plucked the fruit from the branches. I watched the ancient relic of the Soviet aerospace industry belly-flop on to the short runway.

It was a Tupolev, the Tu-154 model famous for its ability to tip backwards if the rear passengers are allowed to board first. A hand-painted red and white livery attached it to Sichuan Airlines, from the home of the spicy cuisine.

Such planes have a special attraction for the new Chinese airlines. Boeing and Airbus Industrie only quote prices in cash, but the sellers of used Tupolevs are more broad- minded: 12,000 tons of mangoes will buy a Tu-154. It is something to do with the difficulty of cash transfers between Russia and China, which harbours the world's fastest growing aviation industry.

I didn't fly Sichuan; nor, luckily, did I ever find myself climbing aboard a Tupolev Tu-154. I stuck to Shenzhen and China Southern airlines, with their trusty Boeings.

China Southern is one of the new rash of 38 fast-climbing and high-flying offspring to come from the break-up of CAAC, the country's former aviation monolith and bearer of an airline-spotter's favourite acronym, 'Chinese Airlines Always Crash'. It's unfair, of course: they didn't always crash, just regularly. Last year one in five of the world's airline fatalities occurred in China.

China Southern successfully transported me and my nerves to Haikou from the shiny new skyport at Shenzhen, the special economic zone that borders Hong Kong. A cleaner, speedier, more hassle-free airport I have yet to experience, and that includes Singapore.

China Southern, which has a fleet bigger than Cathay Pacific, has switched a large chunk of its fleet of new Boeings from its hub in Canton to Shenzhen. This is to cope with a flood of China- bound Hong Kong passengers who are fed up with the queues at the colony's Kai Tak airport.

Cathay is also making moves into China. Part-owned by the Chinese government and keen not to be too closely allied with the British heritage of Hong Kong, it has set up a state-of-the-art overhaul centre in Xiamen. It is meant only for the benefit of Cathay and its partners, but no doubt there will soon be queues of Chinese planes in desperate need of attention.

At Shenzhen, I was tantalised by the promise of 'warm attendants' on Shenzhen Airlines, and seduced by the dirt-cheap first- class return ticket to Peking on offer: the price was pounds 170 for a journey as long as London- New York. Shenzhen has two brand-new 737s - Boeings seem to be the preferred choice for China's new airlines that have the cash to buy them, and the company is not complaining. 'Fourteen per cent of this year's Boeing production is destined for China,' said Adam Heller, a China aviation expert in Hong Kong.

There was no offer of mango juice for lunch on Shenzhen. Instead, the smoked salmon of uncertain origin was washed down with the warm product of a joint brewing venture between China and Bavaria. The attendants were too nervous of the only Westerner on board for me to be able to test whether their temperature matched that of the beer, but tepid seemed closer to the mark than warm. That may change, because the airline is part-owned by the China Travel Service, which annually sends thousands of British travellers to China.

The flying public in China have yet to worry about the quest for frequent flyer points: they are still at the panic stage. There is panic at check-in, where fights are common, and panic for seats. Nevertheless, 'most passengers are businessmen or people who have families in Hong Kong or Taiwan, from where they are sent money,' says Billy P Zhang, the American-trained manager at Shenzhen Airlines. 'Within southern China, it will be about three years before most people can afford to fly. For the rest of the country, they will have to wait until the beginning of the next decade.'

Then, China will face an aviation explosion. A third of the population will be airborne by 2010, an estimated 330 million passengers. That is three times the size of the current flying public in the US, in a country where, at the moment, there are only 12 international-standard air traffic controllers and the pilots who were largely trained on MiGs. That became obvious over Peking when our China Southern 767 came within 600ft of a China Northwestern Tu-154.

The alarming rate of accidents and the impossibility of training sufficient Chinese staff in a hurry has resulted in the hiring of Western crews. Barry Rudkin and Peter Fraser are the first to be taken on. The two Australians can barely order a beer in Chinese, let alone understand if Peking Air Traffic Control, in gabbling Mandarin, is telling them the runway is clear - or not.

The two former captains at Ansett, the domestic Australian airline, were the first Western pilots to take the controls of a domestic Chinese airliner, crewing a new Boeing 737 out of the rundown airport at Haikou, on the way to the Chinese capital, earlier this month. Signed up by the fledgling China Hainan Airlines, based in what looks like a Second World War control tower at Haikou, Rudkin and Fraser have the task of training the airline's Chinese recruits. The pair are staying near the quaintly named Flying Lover's Hotel alongside the airport.

'We will have an interpreter wherever we go,' said Barry Rudkin, 52, who is originally from Brisbane. 'I've never tried to operate on a plane with an interpreter, but it won't mean we compromise safety. We will just slow things down. After all, it's my neck . . .'

Like Shenzhen, Hainan is a special economic zone allowing a freer market economy, free enough to generate the dollars 41m ( pounds 28m) needed to start up China Hainan. 'The government only gave us dollars 1m. The rest we accumulated as a result of Hainan's privileged position,' said Wang Jian, the company's senior vice-president. 'It wasn't easy, though. The first few months in Hainan we all slept on the floor of our office, without mosquito nets and with rats.'

Rudkin and Fraser have yet to encounter the company rodents. They have their hands full mastering the intonations of the language. 'Huan ying da chen Hainan hang kong gong si hang bam' in an Aussie twang over the public address system will have passengers rolling in the aisles. It means 'Welcome aboard Hainan Airlines'.

Travel note: Safety standards on Chinese airlines are far from perfect, yet air travel is the only viable way to see the country. Where possible, fly well-known airlines such as Dragonair (part of Cathay Pacific and bookable through its UK offices), which flies to most cities from Hong Kong. For domestic flights, use carriers such as China Southern.

(Photograph omitted)