The New York Times has published a startling article which infers that the competence of People’s Republic of China regulation of its nascent aerospace manufacturing may be inadequate and/or the sophistication of the domestic OEMs. The information, on which the report is based, is, or should have been, public knowledge for years. The timing of this revelation, with the imminent roll out of the ARJ 21 and the C919, is likely to concern potential buyers of these planes and their future passengers.
The PRC has the world’s largest population (1,376,049,000) and its largest economy ($19.510 trillion; 2015 estimated). It is the #1 marketing target of every large corporation.
Boeing has been pursuing the airlines of China ever since President Nixon’s historic visit in 1972 and even asked the PRC government for permission to build a plant there. Rival Airbus already has an assembly facility there for its A320 aircraft. #3 Embraer is already producing its Legacy 650 through a joint venture with Harbin Aircraft Industry (Group) Co. Ltd., a subsidiary of the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC).
The prize being sought by these OEMs is a Chinese demand for 5,300 new passenger aircraft and freighters from 2014 to 2033, with a total market value of US$ 820 billion. That volume constitutes 17% of the global market (2014-2034).
Here is the critical text of the Times article:
“A Wall Street Journal examination of the MA60, the first Chinese-built airliner with sizable overseas sales, found a pattern of safety problems involving landing-gear malfunctions, braking failures and steering loss, and a track record of multiple other mishaps. Some caused injuries; one killed 25.
Fewer than half the MA60s exported since 2005 appear to be still flying abroad, according to the Journal examination of accident reports and databases, airline and government statements, media accounts, and interviews with regulators and operators.
Of the 57 MA60s the manufacturer said it had exported as of January, at least 26 were put in storage after safety concerns, maintenance problems or other performance issues, the Journal calculated. Six others were deemed damaged beyond repair, or 11% of the foreign MA60 fleet.
An MA60 that veered off the runway in June 2013 after suffering braking failure sat abandoned by the runway of the Kawthaung, Myanmar, airport in November 2015.
A comparable plane, the European-made ATR-72—Myanmar and Tonga switched to it from their MA60s—has seen 3% of its fleet of 835 damaged beyond repair in its 26 years in service, the Journal calculated.”
That is only the beginning of a very long and well documented history of the MA60s. It bears reading to get the full details of the NYT fact-finding and analysis. The publicly available reported data on this Chinese equipment shows that the M60, at best, poorly performed.
The authors attribute much of the failure of the Chinese aviation safety body to send important alerts. The example cited involves Myanmar:
Myanmar’s head of airworthiness at the time of the 2013 Kawthaung accident, Mya Thant, said his department received only about four such directives from the CAAC during the years it operated the MA60. A review of China’s database suggests Myanmar should have received about 20.
Indonesia received only three notices from the CAAC. Even within its borders, the Chinese agency only posted a lesser level of instruction, a service bulletin, on its domestic web site. Those are very serious deficiencies.
The CAAC ultimately bears the responsibility to other CAAs, ICAO and travelers for the airworthiness of the planes which it certificates. The FAA has examined the policies, procedures and personnel of this government body and has found that it is competent. In fact the FAA has agreed by a Bilateral Aviation Safety Agreement, that the CAAC may export its approved aircraft within the following parameters:
“Fixed-wing aircraft not exceeding 12,500 lbs., commuter category airplanes up to 19 passengers with a maximum certificated take-off weight of 19,000 lbs. or less.”
While those limitations would not include the MA60, the degree of design sophistication of the problematic turboprop is not markedly greater than what the BASA would allow.
Further, under the International Aviation Safety Assessment administered by the FAA, the CAAC is categorized as “Category 1” (“does Comply with ICAO Standards: a country’s civil aviation authority has been assessed by FAA inspectors and has been found to license and oversee air carriers in accordance with ICAO aviation safety standards”). That essentially means that after review, the FAA has confidence in the CAAC’s performance.
ICAO and EASA have given similar reviews to the CAAC. The European safety agency, however, has contributed €10 to million project over 5 years towards an EU-China Aviation Partnership Project. EASA and partners, will link technical cooperation with policy dialogue between the European and Chinese aviation authorities. It is curious why €10 is needed if the CAAC meets standards, but one is reminded that the market is the above-mentioned market value of US$ 820 billion.
These technical judgments do not always appear to be purely based on safety considerations; the power of diplomacy and trade considerations may have jaundiced the determinations. An assessment of one sovereign by another is always a difficult exercise in international relations.
This article certainly should cause the FAA, EASA, ICAO and other CAAs to reexamine the CAAC’s ability to certificate and then to insure that the requisite continuing airworthiness notices are promptly and appropriately technically administered. With the near challenge of regulatory approval of the ARJ 21 and the C919, far more complex aircraft requiring more technical assistance, the lessons of these M60 failures should provide a basis for another audit.