What a Wandering Airliner Says About China's Prospects

The meandering path of China Eastern airlines flight 750 four days agoAll maps from FlightAware

The South China Morning Post has a fascinating story about the flight of a Chinese-owned airliner that eventually got its 200 passengers safely to the ground, but not before some misadventures.

The screenshot above, used with permission from FlightAware, shows the route the plane had to take before Chinese controllers allowed it to land. Here's a larger view of the trip, the track of which picks up a little while after its departure.

Highlights were:

• The plane, an Airbus flown by China Eastern, started out in Asahikawa on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido;

• It was headed for Beijing's Capital Airport, shown as ZBAA/PEK on the screen above. But it couldn't land there because the visibility was too low. Planes abort landings because of low ceilings or limited visibility all the time; knowing how and when to execute a "missed approach" safely is part of normal IFR (instrument-flight rules) skills. There are circumstances where some airliners can land with no visibility, but let's ignore them for now. Usually the problem is fog, clouds, and so on. In this case, it was because the pilots couldn't see through Beijing's polluted air. According to the SCMP, some 60 flights were diverted from Beijing that day because the air was opaque.

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• If a plane, especially an airliner, can't land at one airport, it just goes somewhere else. This too happens all the time, as weary frequent flyers know. But the controllers at the nearby Jinan and Qingdao airports in Shandong province said, "Unt-uh." You are not cleared to land. This is very much not the way the aviation world usually works. Remember, too, that this wasn't some threatening alien craft but an international flight by one of China's mainstay airlines.

• Unable to land in Beijing, and not approved to land anywhere else, the plane just circled around in holding patterns, as you see above.

• Eventually and inevitably, it ran low on gas.

• At this point the pilots reported to the controllers that they were in emergency circumstances and needed to land now. The controllers in Qingdao finally said, OK, now that it's an emergency, you can land. According to the SCMP account, the plane had so little fuel left over when it touched down that the final approach to Qingdao was all-or-nothing. There wouldn't have been enough fuel for another "go around."

Here is how the flight looks on a normal day:

This story has everything: Signs of China's growth, prosperity, and strength—planes full of tourists to Hokkaido, shiny new airline fleets. On the other hand, the inescapable consequences of pollution. And, perhaps most important, the distance still to go in developing the complex, resilient, trust-rather-than-command-based networks that are necessary to operate the highest-value modern organizations in the right way.

Universities can't (in my view) operate well in a climate of press censorship; high-tech startups are hindered when there is doubt about contract rights and rule of law; and things like an aviation network don't work well when people are afraid, or unwilling, to adapt and take local initiative rather than waiting for commands. Yes, I do realize how adaptable and de-centralized most of China usually is. But the reason that high-end modern industries like aerospace, bio-tech, and info-tech are such important bellwethers for China's development is that their success depends on a combination of clearly understood standards and delegated authority and decision-making. These modern systems can't work if everyone is waiting for explicit instructions from headquarters or mainly worry that they'll be punished for exercising on-scene judgment.

There is a larger point to make here, about why these top-end, "soft infrastructure" developments will be harder for China (though still perhaps possible) than the hard-production miracles of the past generation. In fact there's a whole book on the topic! I will be interested to hear from my friends in the Chinese aviation world and who will be blamed for what after this event.