WEDNESDAY, MARCH 22, 2006
MONTREAL Just over a decade ago, passengers could take their lives in their hands by flying on domestic airliners in China. Various other parts of the Asia-Pacific region were just as bad, if not worse. How interesting, therefore, that at the meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization here last week, China, India, Pakistan and the other countries of the Group of Asia/Pacific States supported the move to open to public view once-secret safety audits of the world's airlines. In the not-too-distant past, those countries probably would have been allies of Africa and South America in trying to deny the public access to the reports. Even more interesting was the clear - if polite - carrot-and-stick offer from the larger and richer Asian countries to give financial aid to the poorer countries of the region if, and only if, they make an honest effort to raise their level of aviation safety and are open to the public about their problems. Anyone who traveled to China as late as the early 1990s could easily have believed they were traveling back in time. Dropping from the sky at the Beijing airport and taxiing to an old threadbare terminal, planes passed row after row of ancient Russian aircraft, many so shabby-looking that one could not believe they could still fly. Worse, flying domestically in China was like a throw of the dice. In the newly opened Chinese business environment at the time, a passenger might luck into a fairly new U.S.-built plane with clearly professional crews. Sometimes, it was easy to believe one was on a U.S. or West European airline, except that the flight attendants and passengers were Chinese. The next flight, however, might have been on an old Russian aircraft with few, if any, seat belts, with boxes and luggage piled against exit doors and with no pretense of safety concerns by flight attendants or pilots. Some of those flights could raise concern, especially when a pilot landed in weather that clearly would have sent most pilots straight to an alternate airport. Crashes were fairly frequent. Today, however, a landing in Beijing is like that at any modern international airport, with a modern terminal, and it is difficult to find older aircraft. Most aircraft appear to be modern Boeing or Airbus products. Airbus has just signed an agreement with China to build aircraft at a plant in China. In 2005, not a single commercial aircraft crash was recorded in China. India, too, is bursting at the seams with new aircraft as aviation soars in a country where most people have never been on a plane. Pakistan is not only buying aircraft, but its pilots are clearly professional and well trained. The Asia/Pacific group therefore declared at the annual ICAO conference that its members were willing to spread their new professionalism and expertise to their poor cousins, complete with the financial resources to do it right. The group's paper said most countries in the region had a "genuine desire" to be in full compliance with international standards, but they "often lack the critical mass of aviation safety expertise or infrastructure to achieve this goal." At a meeting in Australia in September, the Asia/Pacific group found that countries short of aviation expertise "were well aware of the fact and would be willing to indicate their need for support, and second, that states possessing a great deal of resources with very high compliance status were willing to help their neighbors." But that report also said that before any money could flow, a country must do more than simply ask for it. First, the paper said, a country must show a desire to improve and demonstrate that it is serious about following international safety standards. But the group emphasized that the real test of serious intent is whether a country is willing to be open to regulators and the public about its problems and what it is doing to resolve them. This safety "transparency" - announcing the results of formerly secret ICAO safety audits to the public - was the central theme of the Montreal conference. Any country that is not open eventually will be embarrassed on a public Web site. But the Asia/Pacific group went one step further than the ICAO plan, offering money and assistance to countries that are open to the public about their plans and problems and that really want to fly safely. What a difference a decade makes.