Flight safety instructor Lü Wei (standing) guides participants on how to brace for a jet crash during a March 11 training session in Haikou, Hainan Province. Photo: Courtesy of China Public Security Guard Training Center
Like many people in China, Jiang Ying has been left reeling in shock over the Malaysia Airlines jet with 239 people aboard that went missing on March 8. The 24-year-old, who graduated in January from the King's College London, knows that as a frequent flyer she could easily have been one of the 154 Chinese passengers aboard the ill-fated jet, which as of press time hasn't been found by rescuers.
Previously, Jiang always bought the cheapest flight tickets and paid little attention to airliners' reputations, aircraft or flight routes. But the tragedy of flight MH370 has led her to reassess the safety of air travel.
"I always ignored in-flight safety videos and instructions, but perhaps knowing even one sentence can mean the difference between life and death in the event of a crash. In future, I won't fly for short-distance travel and will always try to book a seat near the emergency exit on big jets," she said.
"I know the chances of being involved in a jet crash are low compared to other forms of transport, but the [flight MH370] incident has deeply affected me."
Jiang is one of many Chinese whose outlook on flying has been put in a tailspin in the wake of flight MH370. The accident comes amid an aviation boom in China, where investment in airports and airliners has soared over the past decade.
Last year there were more than 2 million domestic and international flights in China that accounted for 35.4 million passengers, with the latter figure expected to hit 150 million by 2030, according to the Civil Aviation Administration of China.
Surviving a crash
Xu Da, 40, had his own brush with danger in July last year when he was aboard Asiana Airlines flight 214 from Seoul to San Francisco. "Except for the landing, everything about the flight was perfect," Xu recalled.
The Boeing jet crash-landed after hitting a seawall short of the runway. Two 16-year-old Chinese girls were killed in the crash. Another girl, aged 15 and also Chinese, died several days later in hospital from her injuries.
Xu and his family had been excited about their vacation in San Francisco, but panic set in before their jet touched the tarmac.
"As the plane was preparing to land, I had the feeling something wasn't right. We were flying very low and close to the water [in the San Francisco Bay]. Suddenly, the jet's engine erupted with a giant boom," said Xu, who sat with his then 12-year-old son and wife in economy class near the rear of the aircraft. "The jet fishtailed on the runway, and a huge cloud of dust burst into the cabin. The toilet compartment was torn and flew through the air."
Passengers escaped down evacuation slides from the jet billowing with giant black clouds of smoke from a fire sparked by a ruptured oil tank. Despite extensive damage to the jet, many passengers including Xu and his family members were miraculously able to walk away unscathed.
However, the mental toll of the crash has been severe for many of flight 214's passengers.
"The accident left a great psychological impact on my son," said Xu, who said the boy has been too frightened to fly since the accident.
Chinese airliners are world leaders in terms of aviation safety, even though many passengers ignore flight safety instructions. Photo: IC
A pilot surnamed Zhu from an international Chinese airliner, which he requested not to be named, said experiencing setbacks in the cockpit was an inevitable part of the profession. What matters most is keeping calm and retaining knowledge from training to avert any possible disaster, he added.
One of Zhu's scariest moments occurred in 2003 when he flew an Airbus A302 passenger jet from Shanghai to Chengdu, Sichuan Province.
"An engine sputtered within half an hour after takeoff and we began losing power. I decided to turn back and we landed safely," said Zhu, who later learned one of the engine's blades was broken.
"As we were returning, the flight attendants kept passengers calm and explained there was a mechanical problem. Jet failure isn't a major setback for a pilot, but mentioning such a detail can panic passengers."
According to statistics from the Netherlands-based Aviation Safety Network (ASN), a global database of aircraft crashes saw a record-low 265 fatalities from 29 airliner accidents in 2013.
The country has improved its safety record dramatically over the past decade due to its status as the world's fastest-growing civil aviation market. Stricter safety regulations and better training for crew and air traffic controllers have all led fatal-accident rates of Chinese airliners to be lower than those of airliners in Europe and the US based on ASN data.
"The accident and fatality rates linked with flying are very low due in part to tightened civil aviation security measures in recent years," said Zhu, who has been a pilot for 15 years.
Participants navigate their way to safety during a simulated jet fire. Photo: Courtesy of China Public Security Guard Training Center
Lofty standards for aircraft
Chinese passenger jets are inspected and receive maintenance from mechanics before and after flights in line with international aviation standards. According to airline safety and product rating review website airlineratings.com, major Chinese airliners rank among the world's best in terms of safety. Air China, China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines and Hainan Airlines all have seven out of a possible seven stars for safety.
Flight attendants in China are trained on how to react in emergencies and undergo regular drills simulating scenarios ranging from an aircraft malfunction to attempted hijacking.
A first officer from a regional airliner based in Southwest China, who only gave his surname as Chen, said the country's civil aviation boom had led it to become a world leader in airline safety.
The Boeing 777-2H used for flight MH370 was more than 12 years old. Although aviation experts note this isn't too old based on international fleets, Chen claimed in China most jets exhaust their commercial lifespan after a decade.
"China's civil aviation industry has developed over a short time compared with Western countries, so the condition and models of our jets are comparatively new in many cases. Many foreign airliners will continue to use the same aircraft for more than 20 years, but we phase out those that have been used for more than 10 years," said Chen.
Lax safety awareness
Despite more Chinese taking to the skies than ever before, their enthusiasm for flying often doesn't always apply airline etiquette. Chen said in-flight safety videos and instructions given by flight attendants before takeoff are often ignored.
"Many Chinese passengers neglect to wear seat belts and often use their cellphones, chat with friends or attend to their luggage when they should be paying attention to instructions from flight attendants about emergency procedures," said Chen.
Even after his harrowing experience from the crash landing of Asiana Airlines flight 214, Xu said the pre-takeoff safety demonstration was more ceremonial than practical.
"Many people think that it is vital to listen to instructions from flight attendants and read safety instructions carefully, but I don't think doing so is really going to help you survive a disaster," said Xu. "Only if you have professional training like crew members can you really react as they instruct, but most people tend to follow their instincts rather than recall procedure."
Keeping calm in a crisis
Lü Wei, chief instructor at the China Public Security Guard Training Center, a Beijing-based company that provides aviation safety training to business people who often fly, said following your instincts during an aviation emergency is rarely a good idea.
"If their plane doesn't explode or break up in the air, passengers have a decent chance of survival if they can avoid secondary damage," said Lü.
The training Lü offers gives clients a more in-depth understanding than in-flight safety videos about how to react in the event of a jet crash, fire and sudden descent. "You should always have a careful preflight plan. Count how many rows you are from the emergency exits so you can crawl your way to them if the cabin becomes engulfed with smoke," said Lü.
6 tips to survive a jet crash
1. Pay attention to the in-flight safety video and know the locations of emergency exits.
2. If your jet stalls or descends suddenly, adopt the brace position by leaning forward and holding your legs with your feet flat on the floor.
3. During the flight avoid drinking too much alcohol, which can impair your judgment during an emergency.
4. If you are capable of moving after a crash, get as far away from the jet as possible in case of an explosion.
5. Only inflate your life vest outside the cabin because it will restrict your movement.
6. If smoke fills the cabin, crawl to the nearest exit covering your nose and mouth.
Source: China Public Security Guard Training Center
Zhu Xi contributed to this story