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Air Disasters Prompt China To Look Abroad for Assistance

CHINA is looking for foreign help to upgrade its beleaguered aviation industry.

The crash of a Russian-built airliner and the third hijacking to Taiwan this year has heightened the crisis that has made China's air corridors the world's riskiest. All 160 people died when a China Northwest Airlines plane crashed in Xian June 6 - the nation's worst air disaster. Also that day, a China Southern Airlines jet carrying 139 people was hijacked on a domestic flight.

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These events came two days after the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) said it would step up efforts to improve air safety. In 1993, China had its worst year ever, with five crashes and eight hijackings; this year brought many near misses.

For the first time after an air crash, officials called in a Russian crew and a United States Federal Aviation Administration team to help with the investigation into a cause.

Chinese and Western analysts predict the disasters could intensify government efforts to lure foreign carriers to invest in Chinese air travel and trigger a new shake-up among aviation officials named only last year.

Air safety and efficiency have suffered as growth of the industry outpaces availability of experienced crews and up-to-date planes. Growth has been spurred by decentralization, which created more than 30 semi-independent carriers in 1988, and by a fast-track economy that has attracted foreign investment and revived tourism; it has also led many Chinese to abandon trains for planes.

After two record-breaking years, volume keeps spiraling. In the first five months of this year, Chinese airlines carried 15.3 million passengers and 314,000 tons of cargo, both up more than 19 percent. For the year, CAAC predicts that carriers will transport 13 percent more people and cargo than in 1993.

European aircraft maker Airbus Industrie projects that domestic passenger and cargo demand will grow more than 7 percent yearly in the next 20 years. To deal with the growth, China is trying to form new airlines, repair airports and build new ones, update traffic control and navigational facilities, train pilots and staff, and upgrade service.

Last year, China abandoned its ban on foreign involvement in aviation and invited foreign airlines to invest in carriers and airports through joint ventures. The government reiterated the invitation in May.

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Facing a shortage of domestic capital, the government said foreign investors will be able to buy stakes of as much as 35 percent of Chinese airlines and 49 percent of airports, although Beijing asserted it would limit voting rights to 25 percent. Joint venture board chairmen and general managers must be Chinese, an announcement in the official China Daily said.

TO improve ground control, reservations, and passenger management, officials plan to send staff on study missions to 17 carriers and airports around the world. ``These are steps in the right direction,'' says a Western aviation expert, adding that China now incorporates Western training and maintenance methods.

But Western and Chinese observers predict that the CAAC will have to tighten regulatory control over local carriers that have met demand by buying or leasing Soviet-made aircraft at bargain prices, often with pilots and other staff as part of the deal.

CAAC officials said in the official press that they are considering grounding the accident-prone Russian fleet for safety checks and are considering a moratorium on the purchase of new Russian aircraft.

Although China has bought many American and European aircraft for major international and domestic routes, many overstretched smaller carriers have used Russian aircraft until the arrival of ordered Western airplanes. Airbus projects that China will buy more than 600 passenger planes in the next 20 years.

The government also has to beef up the lax regulation that is fueling the chaos, Chinese observers say. The June 6 crash could lead to a reshuffling among officials in CAAC, which became the aviation regulator after it spun off its operations into seven semi-autonomous companies six years ago.

Meanwhile, passengers still face nervous moments. ``I try not to think about the fact that a Chinese carrier is flying me,'' a US banker in Beijing says.

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