by Robert Saiget
BEIJING, August 26, 2010 (AFP) – China stepped up nationwide checks of its fast-growing airline fleet Thursday as a top aviation official defended the safety of a remote, forested airport where a plane crash killed 42 people.
The Brazilian-made Henan Airlines regional jet crashed in heavy fog near Yichun city’s Lindu airport in northeast China late Tuesday, with 54 passengers and crew surviving the fiery disaster.
Li Qiang, the general manager of Henan Airlines, has been sacked, the Xinhua news agency said.
Major airlines held emergency meetings to review their safety procedures as President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao ordered a thorough probe into the accident’s causes, Xinhua said.
The two top leaders also called for sweeping inspections throughout the country’s passenger airliner network to “eliminate any safety risks”.
China has more than 1,300 passenger jets in its civil aviation fleet, which is rapidly expanding as the country’s booming economy generates more demand for air travel.
Air traffic is set to grow 13 percent year-on-year in 2010 to 260 million passengers, according to official sources, while China is expected to more than double its civil fleet in the coming decades.
Photographs of the crashed ERJ-190 Henan jet showed a charred plane skeleton, its fuselage gutted by fire.
An initial investigation, as well as survivors’ accounts, indicate the plane missed the runway and crashed, cracking the cabin and triggering an explosion and the subsequent fire, Xinhua said.
The black box recorders of flight data and cockpit communications were both recovered near the crash site on Wednesday, reports said.
The plane’s pilot, identified as Qi Quanjun, survived the wreck with severe facial injuries but has said he does not remember what happened, Xinhua reported. The co-pilot and two cabin attendants were killed.
The Southern Daily newspaper said the plane flew nine flights the day of the crash, speculating its busy workload might have contributed to the accident.
But state media also reported numerous concerns over the Lindu airport, which opened late last year and is located in a thickly forested valley surrounded by mountains.
Last September China Southern Airlines suspended all night flights in and out of Lindu due to safety concerns, according to reports.
But Li Jian, the vice director of the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), said the small airport met all safety requirements.
“It is no comparison to big airports but the safety standards are guaranteed,” Xinhua quoted Li as saying.
The airport reopened for flights Thursday after a one-day shutdown.
Brazil’s Embraer, the manufacturer of the plane, offered condolences to the victims’ families and said it had sent a team of technicians to help with the investigation. It said it was the first fatal accident for an Embraer aircraft.
The company is the third-biggest commercial aviation manufacturer in the world, after Boeing and Airbus which provide the bulk of China’s jet fleet.
Chinese airlines fly 30 ERJ-190s, with Henan Airlines operating four of the planes, not including the crashed one, Xinhua said. The jet was relatively new and put into operation in 2008.
But Xinhua said Chinese carriers had previously reported technical problems with ERJ-190s.
A CAAC workshop last year on the issue highlighted broken turbine plates and flight control system errors, Xinhua said.
Xinhua reported an ERJ-190 plane had overshot the runway on landing Wednesday in the city of Nanning in southern China’s Guangxi region. It said airport traffic was briefly disrupted but there were no casualties.
Several runway lights were smashed but no damage to the plane was reported, the report said, citing airport officials.
Tuesday’s crash was China’s first major air disaster since a China Eastern Airlines jet crashed in Inner Mongolia in November 2004, killing 55 people.
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