Bumbling in the cockpit almost results in a China Southern airline crash in Wuhan

Posted: 03/8/2013 9:00 am

If you are scared of flying already, you might want to skip this story. It turns out a China Southern Airlines captain put his passengers in danger after a series of missteps narrowly avoided a crash a couple of weeks ago in Wuhan.

The plane ended up striking objects on the ground outside Wuhan Airport, damaging the underbelly and forcing the plane into an emergency landing at Hefei Airport.

The botched landing attempt of the Boeing 737-800, which holds 164 passengers, took place on February 25. Rumours of the incident circulated on Weibo, but have only now been confirmed by China’s aviation regulator.

The results of a preliminary investigation by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) revealed the captain of the Guangzhou-Wuhan flight disengaged the auto-pilot at 1,000 feet as the plane was descending. This led to the following sequence of events on-board flight CZ 3367:

- At 430 feet, both pilots were unable to spot the runaway approach lights. The first officer called for a ‘go-around’, meaning another landing attempt, but the instruction was ignored. The night-time landing was also hampered by the weather. The foggy conditions meant visibility was between 1,200 metres and 1,500 metres.

- Upon checking outside, the first officer discovered the plane was low, which triggered a “too-low” alarm in the cockpit.

- The co-pilot once again called for a ‘go-around’, which got no response. It took another “too-low” warning for action to be taken.

- As the plane accelerated upwards, the aircraft struck objects on the ground – scraping antenna beacons – forcing the aircraft to burn excess fuel as it headed to Hefei Airport in neighbouring Anhui province.

- The China Southern Airlines flight landed safely at Hefei Airport some 200 nautical miles away.

Simon Hradecky of the Aviation Herald has more on the damage done:

The CAAC reported that the aircraft sustained damage (penetrations and dents) to the left main gear door and left main gear proximity cover actuator, the left main gear outboard tyre received cuts.

The antennas of the southern NDB (non-directional beacon) “D” and inner marker were damaged, two other antenna pillars were damaged as well.

The CAAC annotated that the approach was continued below MDA (minimum decent altitude) without necessary visual reference putting the aircraft below the approach profile, in addition the crew did not initiate the go-around after the first ground proximity alert.

For an airline decorated with the Five-Star Flight Safety Award by the CAAC in 2008, this was an avoidable incident.


Airline revenue crashing due to high-speed rail competition in China

Posted: 02/20/2013 3:55 pm

China’s major airlines are spilling red ink everywhere.

The SCMP is reporting that mainland carriers have amassed RMB1 billion (US$160 million) in losses in the last three months, with pressure coming from China’s ever-expanding high-speed rail network.

Those suffering include Guangzhou-based China Southern Airlines, the biggest of the major domestic carriers, whose revenue per kilometer – a measurement of the available seats sold – fell 1 per cent year-on-year. By comparison, Air China shed 1.5 per cent and China Eastern slumped 2 per cent.

But those statistics don’t really tell the story of last year.

China Southern, which is ramping up capacity with the introduction of five Airbus A380s, is putting more resources into its long-haul operations. The newly appointed ‘Canton Route’ is part of the new international focus. At the same time, it is having to contend with soaring jet-fuel prices.

Here is a significant line from the general manager Tan Wangeng carried in CAPA revealing the extent of today’s problems:

All of the carrier’s 30 weekly services from Guangzhou to Australia and New Zealand are profitable, the result of the carrier’s strategic transformation into an international network carrier (Xinhua, 06-Feb-2013). According to Mr Tan, the majority of Chinese carrier’s international routes are making losses.

With high-speed rail supercharging national connectivity, it’s going some way to put downward pressure on airfares, placing it at odds with the state-backed carriers.

Here’s what MF Global’s greater China transport analyst Geoffrey Cheng told SCMP’s Charlotte So:

“The diversion to high-speed trains has become more and more serious as the memory of the high-speed-train tragedy in Wenzhou in 2011 fades out.”

The situation has been made worse by airlines boosting capacity in expectation of a brisk Chinese New Year. Now, rock-bottom prices are in the system to try and fill seats.

While lagging, aviation analysts CAPA say growth will more than make up for short-term sluggishness. They says airlines can absorb a 3 per cent capacity cut in 2013.

If the 3% drop in capacity is entirely correlated to HSR, the one-year drop would be made up for in coming years with higher growth.

With the Chinese government tightly controlling aircraft imports, demand generally exceeds supply, which would allow any excess capacity on a route to be re-deployed.

CAPA has also conducted more of a detailed analysis on the impact of high-speed rail in China.

HSR holds an advantage over air travel on sectors under 800km. Between 800-1200km there could be a tradeoff depending on factors including how direct the train tracks are and what the fare difference is. Above 1200km air travel will almost always hold an advantage.

Seems pretty straight forward.

China Southern’s biggest high-speed rail threats are from Guangzhou to Wuhan (1020 km) and Beijing (2170km).

Image: Danny Lee