The Long Suffering China Air

Apologies for last week’s gaffe, in which I mistakenly wrote that a degree of latitude was equal to 69.2 nautical miles, rather than the correct — and very obvious, from a pilot’s point of view — 60 nautical miles. I’d initially worked out the calculations using both statute and nautical values, then deleted the wrong ones.

No wisecracks, please, about entering wrong coordinates into navigational computers, and I’d like to pre-answer a question that will, a few paragraphs from now, be sputtering from the lips of every smirking reader: No, the irony of having committed this mistake is not lost on me.

Further, according to reader Mark Brader, the reason Buenos Aires and Montevideo, the cities whose locations got this whole thing going, appear latitudinally juxtaposed on maps, has nothing to do with cartographic projection at all. Any time lines of latitude remain parallel, Brader points out, there cannot be a north-to-south distortion. Brader says the problem is due merely to a slightly, consistently skewed placement of the black dots used to mark the cities.

He also notes that neither BA nor Montevideo are any closer to the “bottom of the earth,” as was stated, than Atlanta or Los Angeles are to the top — both straddling about 35 degrees from the equator in their respective hemispheres. What happens is, most of the earth’s landmass exists north of the equator, and so many maps center their portrayals on about 15 degrees north latitude, deleting much of the planet’s more southerly portions and making the horn of South America seem farther away.

Whether the result of funky cartographic projections or otherwise, Buenos Aires does, at the end of the day, appear south of Montevideo on most flat maps. Let’s leave it at that, and never speak of great circles or map projections again. Deal?

Onward instead to other people’s errors…

“Chinese Airlines Begin Holiday Service to Taiwan,” ran the headline from a small Associated Press story dispatched nationwide two weekends ago. For the first time since 1949, when the two governments split amid civil war, mainland Chinese airlines touched down on Taiwan. The goodwill charters were organized in celebration of the 2005 Lunar New Year. “An Air China Boeing 737, carrying about 300 passengers, traveled from Beijing to Taipei,” the article states, “followed by a Hainan Airlines plane that took off from Guangzhou.” In the spirit of reciprocity, “a jetliner flying for China Airlines took about 300 passengers to Beijing.”

Okay, a few things here. First and foremost, this story echoes the recent return of U.S. air service to Vietnam after a three decade hiatus. Last month, United Airlines began daily flights between Hong Kong and Ho Chi Minh City. Maybe it sounds hokey, but these sort of touchingly reparative gestures are much of what make air travel, for all its duly noted miseries, special and important. Let’s hope for more of them.

What I’d like to know, however, is how Air China got 300 people into a 737. Who knows what information may have been misunderstood or typoed, but the twin engine Boeing workhorse maxes out at roughly half that number. Some models have room for only about 120.

Not to be outdone, the Beijing-based China Daily’s rendition of the same historic occasion describes one participating aircraft as a “Boeing 737-300 jumbo.” The jumbo moniker, which I’m apt to admit is one the goofier qualifiers ever applied to a jetliner, is unofficially reserved for the 747, and not its little brother. Moreover the dash 300 variant is one of the smallest 737s.

China Daily further confuses us with this:

“A Boeing 777 airliner carrying 242 passengers soared into the early morning skies over Guangzhou en route for Taipei. Around 90 minutes later, a China Southern jet with a tail number CZ3097 became the first mainland plane to touch down on Taiwan island in 56 years.”

Congrats for composing a more poetic and uplifting write-up than the button-down AP version. It also makes no sense. There are no aircraft in China — either mainland or Taiwain — with a tail number of CZ3097. All Chinese registrations are prefixed with by B-, not CZ. To make sure, I looked up China Southern’s roster, and it has no 777s with anything close to that tail number.

Ah, but CZ turns out to be China Southern’s IATA identifier — the two-letter code used to prefix flight numbers. (We ignore these codes in the States, but elsewhere flights are routinely designated in full alphanumeric format: BA205; SQ992; QF001.) In other words, it was flight CZ3097 that made history.

Incredible, yes? All of this esoteric critiquing, no doubt, strikes the average reader as picayune and worthless, but it does have a purpose, which is to point out the kind of relentless inaccuracies that appear in virtually every media story about airplanes. The greater lesson being, perhaps, that if it happens with aviation, why not with coverage of medicine, law, armed conflict and so forth? Caveat lector.

Anyway, this time around I’m willing to let the errors slide and will not be filing formal complaints. Why? Because, to my great pleasure somebody managed to put together two complete articles about Chinese commercial aviation, brief as they were, without once mentioning “China Air,” the world’s most popular nonexistent airline.

We’ve been through this before, I know, but the imaginary China Air has received more press mention and word-of-mouth advertising than all genuine Chinese airlines combined. I even received a letter from a guy insisting he flew on a China Air plane. I tried to explain the culprit was likely China Airlines, (that’s the Taiwanese carrier, correctly referenced in the AP piece), or possibly Air China (mainlanders based in Beijing), and gave him the old “You wouldn’t call it ‘American Air,’ or ‘Delta Air,’ would you?”

He didn’t answer. And maybe I’m too harsh about this whole business. If you haven’t noticed, the specifics of Chinese airlines are quite the tangle. Already we’ve encountered China Airlines, Air China, China Southern, Hainan Airlines… Who are these companies?

What happened is this: similar to the breakup of Russia’s Aeroflot in the 1990s, the former Chinese state carrier, CAAC, was chopped into dozens of independent operators. Reluctant to separate, and as a way of maintaining age-old ties, they all took basically the same name: China Eastern; China Northern; China Southern; China Southwest; China United; China Xinhua; China Xinjiang; China Yunnan… Can I stop now?

Actually this is unfair (and a few of those spinoffs have since reconsolidated). We also got Shenzhen Airlines, Xiamen Airlines, Shandong Airlines, Sichuan Airlines, Shanghai Airlines, etc. And biggest of them all, Air China.

But not China Air.

Over on Taiwan, meanwhile, once resided the dubiously titled U-Land Airlines, star of this column’s worst-named-airline-of-all-time competition, seen here a couple of years ago. U-Land is gone now, but the island remains home to 22 million people and a half dozen reasonably sized operators, including Eva Air, the globe-spanning subsidiary of the Evergreen Group, renowned for outstanding service. Also Uni Air, TransAsia Airways, and, biggest of them all, China Airlines.

But not China Air.

Everyone down with this? And we haven’t even gotten to Hong Kong yet. There, among others, are headquartered the fast expanded Dragonair and the famous Cathay Pacific, a perennial industry leader.

Granted, it’s a mess, but then China — the big part anyway — is the world’s most populous country. What I recommend is the following: First, that Taipei and Beijing get over their grievances and rejoin. This new SuperChina then promptly reestablishes a single, old-style national airline through the merger of its many splintered entities. The resulting behemoth will be called, obviously, China Air, thus effecting an end to all of the confusion while at the same time validating a name that most people assume is already there. It’s win-win for everyone.

(Time for a quickie poll: True or false, this is the best column I ever wrote?)

As is well known, the airlines of China are extremely dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. Over at SOAR, a fear-of-flying consultation service, president Tom Bunn advises his subscribers to avoid most of them. Bunn is a retired Pan Am captain and licensed therapist who helped found that fabled carrier’s in-house fearful flyer program in 1982 (imagine a time when airlines bothered with such good-sense outreach endeavors).

I don’t think it’s wise for people to choose any airplane with ‘China’ on its fuselage,” warns Bunn.

“Not sure if I would go that far,” voices Mike (last name withheld by request), who has flown transpacific routes for United Airlines into Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and Taipei, and routinely crosses paths with our Chinese competitors. “But they do have terrible track records.”

I asked whose record he considered most egregious, and Mike replied, “Probably China Air.”

Bollocks! I attest with unshakeable confidence that China Air has never suffered a fatality or hull loss. What Mike presumably means is China Airlines, whose accident history, at least among the 50 or so largest global players, is arguably the most tarnished out there. Some have called it “the most dangerous airline in the world.”

Is it? According to Airsafe.com, China Airlines has recorded seven crashes since 1980. Seven wrecks in 25 years parses out to 0.28 annually, or roughly a crash every four years. That’s comparatively awful, sure. A perusal of similarly sized companies — those with 60-70 jetliners — reveals an average of one or two losses over the same quarter century span.

Revealing, yet therein is the rub. Seven versus two, in the context of tens of thousands of yearly departures, underscores how airline-to-airline comparisons are a game of statistical minutiae. China Airlines carries more than seven million passengers each year. Are your chances of injury or death greater aboard a China Airlines flight than aboard most others? Technically yes. Practically speaking, no. Just as your chances of winning the lottery are only minutely improved by purchasing, say, three tickets instead of one.

And be careful where your information comes from. Let’s dip into the Ask the Pilot archives and revisit some old postings (edited for clarity) from Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree, an online advice and information forum. LP’s readers are among the most savvy travelers in the world, so it’s discouraging, if not wholly unsurprising, to discover the levels of misinformation at this site:

“China Airlines had ten crashes in the past four years. That’s why they are cheap.”

You’re close on the crash number, but you’re off by 25 years. And this low fares/safety correlation is a startling one. Southwest and JetBlue must be deadly, yet neither has had a fatal accident. What gives?

“China Airlines employ ex-military [pilots], hence the appalling safety record.”

We’d all better tear up our tickets then, since every major U.S. airline, and most others too, recruit a high percentage of former military flyers.

“China Airlines went down in 1999 and eight other times since 1970. They are not the worst, but are three times more likely to crash than American or European airlines!”

Maybe true, but three times almost nothing is still almost nothing.

“Three separate China Airlines planes fell out of the sky and crashed within a month! No joke, I am serious.”

Of course you are. You’re also wildly wrong. Three crashes in a month? Somehow I missed that, and so have all the records.

Forget the Thorn Tree. The Web’s best and most convenient source for data is probably Airsafe.com. Run by Dr. Todd Curtis, Airsafe is easy to navigate, accurate and professional — free of the sensationalist descriptions and gory disaster photos that mar the credibility of similar pages.

In some cases the site is too comprehensive for its own good, requiring some cautious dissection. Remember that raw accident numbers are deceptive without context. Airsafe’s events totals offer equal weight to all incidents, regardless of the number of people killed, whether two or 200. They include hijackings, ground equipment accidents, and other ancillary casualties not always owed to a carrier’s fault or negligence. Air China’s tally, for example, accounts for the deaths of five people believed to have contracted SARS aboard one of its aircraft. And fatalities involving regional carriers are grouped with their mainline affiliates. The 2004 crash of a Corporate Airlines 19-seater is listed under American Airlines, with whom Corporate shares a name-only code-sharing arrangement. Also critically important, as we’ve already seen, is the size and scope — fleet size, volume of departures annually — of a particular airline.

Using a formula devised by MIT professor Arnold Barnett, Airsafe ciphers the variables of scale and proportion to come up with a “Rate” index. This method “sums the proportion of passengers killed and divides that by the underlying number of flights,” providing a “passenger mortality risk per randomly chosen flight.”

Although the site’s most useful stat, here too the numbers aren’t always what they seem. Air Zimbabwe’s posted Rate of 11.54 is one of the highest (worst) of any airline. At the same time, Air Zimbabwe, albeit a tiny outfit, hasn’t had an accident since one of its turboprops was shot down by rebels in 1979.

Personally I wouldn’t bother vetting an airline’s background unless headed for one of the more dodgy and unstable regions of the world. And even there, flying will normally present better odds than driving. For the survival minded flyer, there’s not a lot of difference between who is “safest” and who is most “dangerous.” The distinctions are, for most intents and purposes, academic. But if you’re comforted by such reviews, and/or you’re the type enamored of calculators and tinkering with decimal places, go ahead and bookmark Airsafe into your browser.


This Q&A is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.