One of the reasons fatal air crashes receive so much publicity these days is because flying is highly safe and accidents rarely occur. The loss of a China Eastern Airlines Boeing 737-800 on 21 March is the first fatal crash since 2010 in what is one of the world’s biggest domestic aviation markets, and that alone is testament to the huge advances China has made in improving the safety record of its industry.
The investigation into the disaster will focus attention on how ready Beijing is to be completely transparent. At time of writing, the 737’s flight data recorder had not been located, and – despite feverish, largely uninformed speculation on social media – few details had emerged about the circumstances behind the incident. However, the authorities will be expected to be open when it comes to revealing any findings, even if awkward or inconvenient.
The loss of the aircraft, carrying 132 passengers and crew, happened as China was mulling if and when to bring the Boeing 737 Max back to service. It is one of the last countries to still ban the latest-generation jet. While the crash of MU5735 has nothing to do with the safety issues that led to the Max’s almost two-year global grounding, it could influence the regulators’ decision – for political if no other reasons. China Eastern has already suspended its fleet of more than 200 737-800s.
The repercussions of Western sanctions on the Putin regime continue to widen, affecting European cargo airlines linked to Russia. CargoLogic Germany has been told it cannot fly its four Boeing 737 freighters in EU airspace, while the UK’s CargoLogicAir – which has two 747-400Fs – has not flown since 11 March. Both are owned by Alexey Isaykin, a Cypriot citizen who is also president of Russia’s Volga-Dnepr Group. CargoLogic insists it is “a completely independent and German company”.
Meanwhile, with Airbus, Boeing and other manufacturers no longer selling to or supporting Russian airlines, Moscow is looking to fill the gap by upping production of indigenous airliners, including the Tupolev Tu-214, an A320 and 737 rival. The type, powered by local Aviadvigtel engines, has been built in tiny numbers for most of this century, and simply increasing output to low double figures a year would be a daunting industrial challenge for Russia’s aerospace champion United Aircraft.
Elsewhere, Asia-Pacific continues to emerge from its two-year pandemic hibernation, with Singapore ready to fully open its borders to vaccinated travelers on 1 April, removing most Covid-19 testing and its previous “vaccinated travel lane” scheme, which restricted numbers entering the city state. Air New Zealand is preparing for that country’s removal of many travel restrictions with plans for thrice-weekly non-stop flights from Auckland to New York from September, delayed since 2020.
In the USA, two of the last vestiges of Covid-19 regulations on air travel are the on-board mask mandate and pre-entry tests for international passengers. Both must go as they no longer make sense in the current epidemiological environment, urge the chief executives of 10 airlines in a letter to President Biden this week. The mask rule, in particular, has provoked friction, with flights diverted after “air rage” incidents involving passengers unwilling to wear one.
With an appetite in the business community to resume face-to-face interactions after two years of Zoom calls, even long-haul travel is showing signs of recovery. Most airlines remain hopeful about a return to 2019 levels of activity within two years. However, the China Eastern crash shows that the sector can never stop thinking about ways of improving safety, and Ukraine that – no matter how efficient, nimble and prepared – aviation will always be at the mercy of geopolitical tides.
Former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was asked about the greatest challenge he faced as a statesman. His reply: “Events, dear boy, events.” The same could be said for our industry.
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