Plane sail­ing for more than half a cen­tury

Jan 1 marks 60 years since the birth of mod­ern civil avi­a­tion in the Xin­jiang au­ton­o­mous re­gion, and, de­spite the ever-present threat of ter­ror­ism, the ser­vice is still go­ing strong, re­port Cui Jia in Beijing and Gao Bo in Urumqi.

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE -

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 then­cap­i­tal 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.

Fu re­called how a flight at­ten­dant foiled an at­tack on a plane from Urumqi to Beijing onMarch 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 af­terChina 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 sawa 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, the­men­tried to break down the cock­pit door, and phys­i­cally and ver­bally as­saulted the flight crew and pas­sen­gers, who­foiled 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.

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 hostage­tak­ers, 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 hi­jack­pre­ven­tion 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 toXi­aQing, 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 in­China. “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.

Fu­said 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.” Con­tact the writer at cui­jia@chi­ and gaobo@chi­

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