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Plane sailing for more than half a century

Cui Jia and Gao Bo
Updated: Dec 31,2014 9:24 AM     China Daily

Fu Puyan started his career in nonmilitary aviation in 1979 as a pilot of prop-driven civil aircraft in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. At the time only officials at the county-level or above enjoyed the privilege of traveling by air, and only if they could secure a coveted ticket that bore an illustration of Tian’anmen Square in red.

Today, Fu is the manager of the Xinjiang branch of China Southern Airlines Co, overseeing the operation of a fleet of 50 planes, including four Boeing-777s.

There’s just one day to go until Fu and everyone that has worked in the region’s civil aviation industry can celebrate 60 years of accident-free flight. “I am proud to say that 60 years is both a national and world record,” the 55-year-old said.

On Jan 1, 1955, the Civil Aviation Administration of China established an office in Xinjiang, marking the birth of modern civil aviation in the region. The first route was from Urumqi, the regional capital, to Almaty, the then-capital of Kazakhstan.

“Achieving this 60-year record hasn’t been easy for Xinjiang because, in addition to the standard safety issues, our planes have always been targets for terrorists, separatists, and extremists in the region,” Fu said.

“They know that hijacking a plane will make a bigger impact than anything else, so they’ve never stopped plotting. As religious extremism has penetrated deeper in predominantly Muslim Xinjiang in recent years, the prevention of incidents such as hijackings has become a major task for our cabin crews,” he said.

Attempted attacks

Fu recalled how a flight attendant foiled an attack on a plane from Urumqi to Beijing on March 7, 2008. “I was really terrified when it happened, and still am in a way, because the consequences if we hadn’t managed to stop it were unthinkable.”

Shortly after China Southern Airlines Flight CZ6901 took off, flight attendant Chen Lu noticed a strong smell of gasoline coming from one of the restrooms. When she forced the door open, she saw a suspicious-looking woman who smelled strongly of perfume.

Chen’s suspicions were aroused when she noticed that the waste bin was full of toilet paper. The flight had only been in the air for 40 minutes, so it was highly unlikely that the bin would be full.

When she donned rubber gloves and checked the bin, Chen discovered a soft-drink can full of gasoline She quickly reported the fact to the captain, who in turn relayed the information to Fu. “I took the matter very seriously, and ordered the captain to start the emergency procedure and land at the nearest airport,” Fu said. The plane was diverted to Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, and the incident ended without injury or damage to the aircraft.

Later, the 19-year-old woman confessed to attempting to hijack and crash the plane. A police investigation showed that the incident was a planned terrorist attack, and the woman had doused herself in strong perfume to disguise the smell of the gasoline, which she had injected into the empty can with a syringe.

On June 29, 2012, six men carrying sharpened metal crutches and concealed explosives attempted to hijack Tianjin Airlines Flight GS7554 to Urumqi shortly after takeoff from Hotan Airport in southern Xinjiang.

Shouting extremist religious slogans, the men tried to break down the cockpit door, and physically and verbally assaulted the flight crew and passengers, who foiled the plot by preventing the men from detonating the explosives.

Jin Ping is one of four licensed female security officers employed by the Xinjiang branch of China Southern, which took over Xinjiang Airlines Co-China’s first commercial airline-in 2002.

Security measures

The 24-year-old said she has to conceal her identity and act and dress like a regular passenger during flights. “It’s a very tense time when we spot passengers we think are acting suspiciously, although the other passengers won’t notice a thing. We watch the suspect’s every move until all the passengers have left the plane,” the former special police officer said. “Then we can take a long, deep breath.”

She declined to reveal too many details about her job because the information is classified, but said, “It’s an important job. If something happens on the ground I can call for backup, but when a plane takes off, we (the security officers) are the only ones that can protect the passengers. There’s no one else.”

Li Fei, deputy director of the security department of China Southern’s Xinjiang branch, said security officers travel on all the airline’s flights to and from Xinjiang, and because their work makes them especially vulnerable to hostage-takers, female flight attendants are also given combat training, and can easily take down adult males.

Fu said that although crew members receive a great deal of training to help them handle attacks and other in-flight incidents, the focus of hijack-prevention work should be on the ground. “We have to make sure that no dangerous items can be slipped onto the plane in the first place,” he said.

According to Xia Qing, leader of the inspection team at Urumqi International Airport, which handled more than 15 million passengers in 2013, the security checks at the airport are the most rigorous in China. “In addition to using X-rays to check hand luggage, officers are posted at the boarding gates to check for explosives and firearms,” she said.

Xin said the main priorities are to ensure the inspection equipment is working properly and to remind the officers of the heavy responsibility they bear. “We have uncovered some terrorist suspects during our inspections. When that happens, we hand them over to the police for further questioning.”

Although most passengers understand the need for strict security checks, Xia and her team are frustrated when some passengers are reluctant to cooperate when asked to remove their belts or shoes for inspection, or say it’s a waste of time.

“We’ve discovered lighters and knives hidden in belts, so it’s essential that all passengers remove their belts for inspection,” she said. “Sadly, some file complaints, even though we are doing everything possible to ensure that every single passenger is safe.”

Li Zheng, deputy director of Xinjiang Airport Group, said security was stepped up at all of Xinjiang’s airports after a riot in Urumqi in July 2009 left 197 people dead. Since then, police officers have conducted round-the-clock armed patrols at the region’s airports.

Fu said everyone that works, or has worked, at Xinjiang’s airports, airlines, and air traffic control posts has contributed to the safe departure and arrival of every flight during the past 60 years.

To illustrate that point, Liu Wenci, deputy director of the Xinjiang Air Traffic Management Bureau, quoted Chesley Sullenberger, the US Airways captain who in 2009 successfully “landed” an Airbus in the Hudson River in Manhattan after both engines had been disabled by a bird strike.

“We need to try to do the right thing every time, to perform at our best, because we never know what moment in our lives we’ll be judged on.”