Despite recent events, China has somehow managed to maintain a fairly impressive air safety record, especially for a massive country growing at warp speed near or above 10 percent annually.

This post began as an excuse to showcase an old, entertaining article by former Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent Uli Schmetzer entitled Near the Twilight Zone: All Aboard Air China’s Flight 173.  In the process, it evolved into a short, thankfully reassuring look at the safety of Chinese air travel.

Air China Flight 173

In his 1992 article, Schmetzer vividly, if sometimes morbidly, describes the colorful sightings aboard Air China Flight 173 from Sydney to Beijing.  The passengers of note include a man who is led to his seat in handcuffs and a straitjacket.  There is widespread controversy among the passengers, including two neurosurgeons, about whether the elderly man lying across Row 16 is alive or dead.  The plane gets repaired on the runway before takeoff by two “almighty bangs” to its underbelly with a sledgehammer.  During flight, the crew is mostly pre-occupied with learning their fates from a palm-reading passenger.  In another disturbing piece, the pilots somehow manage to lock themselves out of the cockpit mid-flight only to resort to breaking down the door with an ax to get back to the controls.

While Flight 173 regularly landed late but safely, passengers on a recent domestic flight on regional Henan Airlines on the foggy night of August 23, 2010 were not so fortunate.  The plane crashed outside the city of Yichun in Heilongjiang Province killing 42 passengers and injuring 54 others and sparking new fears about the safety of Chinese air travel.

China’s Air Safety Record

Despite the tragic outcome, the Henan Airlines flight is also noteworthy for bringing to light China’s air safety record.  In fact, the data and industry sources suggest that China is actually a pretty safe place to fly.  Until the crash, China had maintained an air safety record of 2,102 days, or more than five years, without accidents (though GS is unable to independently confirm these data).

Even Schmetzer notes that foreign airline officials attested to the good safety record of Air China.  According to the website, Air China earns a 26 percent above (better than) average accident rate, which looks to compare reasonably well with other major international carriers, including: Air France (79 percent worse than average), Cathay Pacific (31 percent better),Japan Airlines (JAL, 0 percent better/worse) Singapore Airlines (101 percent worse), and Virgin Atlantic (9 percent better).  The “accident rate” is determined by the percentage above or below the average accident rate for 87 major carriers.  An airline industry consultancy, GCW Consulting, considers China’s “overall air safety record” one of the world’s best for the past six years.

Development Challenges

China’s air record is all-the-more impressive when you consider the many factors working against it.  China had the second highest passenger kilometers flown per year in 2008 with 251 million km, coming in behind the U.S. (1.3 million km) and ahead of the U.K. (228 million km).  To sustain its rapid growth rate, China has built 40 airports in the last decade.  To hold onto a share of China’s lucrative air travel market, Chinese provinces were hastily leasing old Soviet-built planes and sometimes even relying on Russian crews in the 1990’s.  As in other industries, Chinese airlines have struggled to build and maintain a professional, well-trained workforce of management, staff, and maintenance personnel.

Air Travel Safety

Rather than relying solely on China’s air safety record, passengers can also take comfort in knowing the overall odds of being ensnared in a fatal airline accident are decidedly in their favor.  According to, “Aviation accidents are extremely rare, with the probability of a passenger being killed on a single flight at approximately eight million-to-one. If a passenger boarded a flight at random, once a day, everyday, it would statistically be over 21,000 years before he or she would be killed.”

Fortunately then, despite some disturbing anecdotal evidence, between China’s good air safety record and the general rarity of serious plane accidents, it seems that business and vacation travelers on Chinese airlines can rest reasonably assured that they will arrive at their next destination safe and sound.

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Economist.  Pocket World in Figures.  2010 Edition.

Kuo, Lily.  Critics Say Air Safety Standards Have Fallen in China.  Chicago Tribune.  August 26, 2010.

LaFraniere, Sharon.  Plane Crashes in Northeastern China, Killing 42.  New York Times.  August 24, 2010.

PlaneSpotting Zone.

Schmetzer, Uli.  160 Die in China’s Worst Plane Crash – More Problems for Nation’s Troubled Regional Airlines.  Chicago Tribune.  June 7, 1994.

Schmetzer, Uli.  Near the Twilight Zone: All Aboard Air China’s Flight 173.  Chicago Tribune.  August 28, 1992.

Xin, DingDing.  China’s 5-year Air Safety Record Ends.  People’s Daily Online (China Daily).  August 26, 2010.