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Why the China Eastern Crash Is Such a Shock to the Country

4 minute read

It’s still far too early to know for certain what caused China Eastern Flight 5735 to crash into hillside in southwestern China’s Guangxi province on Monday, but videos emerging on social media of a huge fire and smouldering wreckage don’t bode well for its 123 passengers and nine crew.

The Boeing 737-89P left Kunming at 13:11 p.m. local time and was due to arrive in Guangzhou at 15:05 pm but rapidly lost speed around 2:20 p.m. before entering a sharp descent, according to flight-tracking data. On Monday, China’s strongman President Xi Jinping ordered an “all out” rescue effort although state media has said the 600 emergency responders dispatched have found no sign of survivors.

Minds are already turning to what caused the plane to come down just southwest of the Chinese city of Wuzhou and what it means for China’s airlines. As of April 2020, China overtook the U.S. to have the world’s biggest aviation industry, which those in the industry hoped to be profitable again this year, despite being badly hit by the pandemic.

“It’ll be a huge shock to them,” David Newbery, a retired Hong Kong flight captain and accredited aircraft accident investigator, tells TIME. “The Chinese are a bit paranoid about air safety and will go ballistic at this one without a doubt.”

How China turned its airline safety record around has become a model for others. The nation experienced a spate of deadly crashes in the 1990s, including seven from 1992 to 1994 that claimed 492 lives. After that nadir, Beijing requested help from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which sent advisers and provided guidance on how it meticulously regulated American aircraft operations.

China’s last major airline crash was in 2010, when an Embraer ERJ-190LR operated by Henan Airlines crashed while trying to land on a foggy runway, catching fire and killing 44 of the 96 people on board. Last year, China’s airlines recorded 100 million continuous hours of safe flight—the longest of any nation’s civilian aviation industry, according to state news wire Xinhua. That said, it has had its share of aviation tragedy; two thirds of the 239 passengers and crew on Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370—which vanished March 8, 2014, over the southern Indian Ocean—were Chinese.

Today, China’s own aviation regulations are even more stringent than the FAA’s. Following the March 2019 crash of a 737 Max 8 jetliner operated by Ethiopian Airlines, Chinese regulators grounded 96 of the aircraft operated by Chinese carriers within 20 hours, including 14 planes operated by China Eastern. Despite 737 Max aircraft getting the FAA green light to fly again last May, China waited until the winter before it allowed the planes to fly in the country—the last major market to do so.

The aircraft involved in Monday’s crash was not a Max. It had been delivered to Shanghai-based state airline China Eastern from Boeing in June 2015 and had been flying for more than six years. The single aisle, twin-engine Boeing 737 is one of the world’s most popular aircraft for short and medium-haul flights.

Neither China Eastern nor Boeing have officially commented on the crash, but the latter’s shares fell 7.8% in premarket trading in New York upon news of the tragedy.

The extent to which the crash will be investigated remains to be seen. Newbery says that in the past there has been a tendency in China to attribute blame to one scapegoat, draw a line under an incident and move on, rather than adopting a “Just Culture” system, which holistically examines all contributing factors and shares accountability across an organization.

“Air accidents are nearly always hugely complex and just to seize upon an individual and punish them quite often covers up systemic problems, which aren’t addressed,” he says. “Things like fatigue, pilots who are poorly trained on badly designed aeroplanes in weather conditions that were not conducive to flight safety quite often have bearings on accidents.”

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Write to Charlie Campbell at charlie.campbell@time.com