Soldiers guard the remains of a crashed plane on August 25, 2010. The plane, which belonged to Henan Airlines, had crashed while landing at an airport in Yichun, Heilongjiang Province the previous night. Photo: CFP
Human error and poor supervision from civil aviation authorities were the causes of a deadly 2010 plane crash in Yichun, Heilongjiang Province, which killed 44 people and injured 52, according to a recent report by the State Administration of Work Safety.
The plane's pilot should be held criminally liable, while the officials involved should be subject to disciplinary measures, be demoted or dismissed from their posts, the report said.
The report was unprecedented in its level of detail, paving the way for more detailed public accident reports in future.
A Brazilian-made ERJ-190 jet operated by Henan Airlines crashed while landing at Lindu Airport in Yichun on August 24, 2010.
Three days after the accident, a panel was established, consisting of officials from six central-government ministries and the Heilongjiang provincial government.
Over the course of two years, the panel carried out on-site investigations and collected evidence. They also consulted experts to assess precisely what occurred as well as the direct and indirect causes. They also assessed the extent of property losses.
The panel recommended punishments for the 19 people responsible for the accident, including the plane's pilot, airline officials and local civil aviation authorities.
Pilot Qi Quanjun violated operational rules by attempting to land the plane when visibility at the airport was below safety standards, causing the accident, according to the five-part report.
Qi also failed to properly evacuate the passengers and rescue the injured after the accident, as he left the plane without authorization, it added.
The panel suggested revoking Qi's pilot license, removing him from his post, expelling him from the Communist Party of China and pursuing criminal charges against him.
Henan Airlines poorly supervised its pilots and did not properly train its crew, the report noted. The company, which had its license temporarily revoked after the crash, should be fined 5 million yuan ($791,000) and should only resume operation after restructuring and assessment.
According to China Aviation News, an industry newspaper owned by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China, the Yichun air crash report represented the first time the Chinese government publicized such a detailed investigation report, in contrast with reports of previous civil aviation disasters that only drew brief conclusions.
Previous reports often drew public ire due to the lack of information. One such example was the report issued after an accident on May 7, 2002, when an MD-82 passenger plane belonging to China Northern Airlines plunged into the sea near Dalian, Liaoning Province with 112 people aboard, shortly after the pilot reported a fire in the cabin.
There were no survivors.
Seven months later, the investigation panel only released information relating to the cause of the accident to the public, saying that a passenger lit a fire on the plane to intentionally cause the crash. The report failed to satisfy public concerns.
In another instance, a Canadian-made CRJ200 jet crashed on November 21, 2004, killing 55 people in Baotou, in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.
About two years later, the State Administration of Work Safety released an investigation report made up of just two short sections, one dedicated to the causes of the crash and the other recommending punishments for staff at China Eastern Airlines.
The Yichun plane crash report, however, included extensive information on issues ranging from the plane itself to the crew, the weather, supervision authorities, what occurred, the causes, punishments and suggested measures for preventing similar disasters.
Experts say that previous reports lacked information because authorities were concerned about releasing too much information to the public.
"As far as the air defense departments are concerned, many details of air disasters should be secret. They fear people might imitate the plots of violent movies. This is why many crime or detective movies leave out certain details, so criminals can't improve their methods," Wang Yonggang, a professor from the Tianjin-based Civil Aviation University of China, told reporters after the Dalian plane crash.
There could be other reasons for short reports, however.
"In cases where the plane was totally destroyed and the passengers all died, there is little evidence to uncover, so the reports tend to be very simple. Compared with previous air disasters, there was a lot of evidence and many witnesses to the Yichun plan crash, so the report contains more details and is much more reliable," Huang Longyang, an associate professor at the Sichuan-based Civil Aviation Flight University of China, told the Global Times.
The effect of the report
When an air disaster occurs, a detailed report is submitted to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to help analyze the cause of the disaster and reduce the chances of similar disasters in the future, Huang said.
"The detailed report of the Yichun plane crash, which has been released to the public, demonstrates social development and improvements in transparency," Huang said.
In the past, when captains did something wrong, the airlines would shoulder the responsibility. If individuals risk punishment when making mistakes, aviation workers are likely to be more cautious, Huang said.
This represents the first time that a report has led to punishments for individuals. Previously, aviation companies decided discipline in what was effectively a secret in-house process. Punishments tended to be along the lines of revoking a pilot's license, a professor surnamed Wu from the Civil Aviation Flight University of China, told the Global Times.
"Having clearly defined responsibilities is conducive to punishing personnel with laws, and would enhance safety awareness," Wu said. "Supervision, personnel training, and safety standards would be improved."
But Wu also said that if laws are used to regulate every detail of the operation, it could have a negative effect on morale and lead to staff being distracted by laws and fine print, instead of doing their job properly.
The deadly accident rang an alarm bell for China's aviation safety standards. The country has quickly developed a civil aviation industry, however in many cases, safety measures still need to catch up, Huang said.
China will have over 240 airports in use in the civil aviation industry by 2020, up from 180 in 2011, Li Jiaxiang, head of the Civil Aviation Administration, said in June.
"Severe punishments would sound a warning to small airline companies, telling them that they might face bankruptcy even with government support if an accident occurs. This will urge them to improve safety," Wu said.