Sunday, March 20, 2016

A Tarnished Turboprop Clouds China’s Aviation Dream: Beijing aims new jetliners at the global runway, but the troubled MA60 turboprop haunts it

The Wall Street Journal
By DANIEL STACEY in Kawthaung, Myanmar, and  CHUN HAN WONG in Beijing
March 20, 2016 4:36 p.m. ET

In June 2013, Myanma Airways Flight 309 veered off a runway in Kawthaung, Myanmar, with 60 passengers aboard and hit a wall. Myanmar’s investigation concluded the brakes and steering failed after a hydraulic-pressure drop.

Myanmar that year banned the plane, a Chinese-made Modern Ark 60 turboprop, from its airspace. Flight 309’s hulk still sits by the runway.

The day of that incident, an MA60 crash-landed in Kupang, Indonesia, injuring five. Bolivia, the Philippines and others have had MA60 accidents and grounded planes. Tonga grounded its MA60 after pressure from New Zealand, which warned its citizens not to fly in it.

China hopes soon to start exporting two new jetliners, part of its goal of securing a bigger place in global aviation and competing with giants such as Boeing Co. and Bombardier Inc. Looming over its plan is the turboprop that was supposed to be a steppingstone into foreign markets, the MA60, seating up to 60.

A Wall Street Journal examination of the MA60, the first Chinese-built airliner with sizable overseas sales, found a pattern of safety problems involving landing-gear malfunctions, braking failures and steering loss, and a track record of multiple other mishaps. Some caused injuries; one killed 25.

Fewer than half the MA60s exported since 2005 appear to be still flying abroad, according to the Journal examination of accident reports and databases, airline and government statements, media accounts, and interviews with regulators and operators.

Of the 57 MA60s the manufacturer said it had exported as of January, at least 26 were put in storage after safety concerns, maintenance problems or other performance issues, the Journal calculated. Six others were deemed damaged beyond repair, or 11% of the foreign MA60 fleet.

A comparable plane, the European-made ATR-72—Myanmar and Tonga switched to it from their MA60s—has seen 3% of its fleet of 835 damaged beyond repair in its 26 years in service, the Journal calculated.

Xi’an Aircraft Industry (Group) Co., the MA60’s maker, referred queries to its parent, state-owned Aviation Industry Corp. of China, or AVIC, which didn’t respond to inquiries.

China has soared into markets from steel to smartphones, often selling low-cost products in poorer nations before moving upmarket. Its aviation ambitions are having trouble following that path, showing the limits of China’s state-sponsored approach to a global market that presents high technological and regulatory hurdles.

The Journal examination found the regulator, the Civil Aviation Administration of China, may not have conveyed certain MA60 safety information to some importing countries despite bilateral agreements requiring it do so. The CAAC doesn’t always make domestic accident data readily available, a problem for a global industry that depends on such data to hone safety measures, and abroad has played down safety concerns around the MA60.

In a written response to the Journal, the CAAC said the MA60 has no design flaws compromising safety. Overseas accidents in recent years “weren’t directly caused by factors related to the aircraft’s design and manufacture,” it said. “These accidents have no direct relation with the aircraft’s safety.” It said it sends safety information in line with bilateral agreements.

Tevita Palu, chief executive of Tonga’s national carrier, to which China gave an MA60 as a gift, said CAAC officials told him the accidents were “only caused by pilot error.”

Inside China, the CAAC has been more vocal about MA60 problems. In 2014, it issued Chinese-language notices on its website warning about parts of the plane after domestic incidents involving landing-gear problems. A Xi’an official in 2014 told state media the landing-gear system had reliability issues.

The CAAC said it uses “stern administrative measures” to oversee aviation and cites China’s record of few recent domestic air fatalities: “This is sufficient for giving the public confidence in the overall safety of Chinese civil aviation.” It didn’t respond to subsequent inquiries.

China’s new jets

China will need confidence in its regulator when it markets its new jets. Neither jet has U.S. or European certification, so China can’t sell them in much of the developed world. It must persuade operators elsewhere its CAAC can provide oversight of the planes.

One is China’s first homemade commercial jetliner, the ARJ21 seating up to 90, slated for commercial debut this year. The other, the C919 seating up to 174, is at least two years from delivery. Both are built by state-owned Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China, or Comac, of which AVIC is a major shareholder. The jets are expected to have lower price tags than Western rivals’.

The CAAC certified the smaller jet in 2014, a process the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration observed. The FAA last year said it never intended to certify the ARJ21 as part of the process and would consider approving it after Comac upgraded it to Western standards, adding that Comac planned a derivative model complying with FAA standards.

The CAAC has said it also plans to seek FAA certification for the larger jet.

“The CAAC adopts a serious, strict and meticulous attitude in examining the development and production of Chinese-made civil aircraft,” Comac said. “They must also be put through all sorts of tests, examinations and regulatory assessment, in line with international standards and requirements that are integrated with or equivalent to the FAA’s.” The MA60 and the jets, Comac said, “are independent of each other, and don’t affect one another.”

The MA60, too, doesn’t have FAA approval. In developing nations where its exports concentrated, authorities have signed agreements with China that typically let the planes fly on the proviso the CAAC monitors aircraft problems and keeps local regulators abreast of safety issues.

In marketing materials, Xi’an touts the MA60 as inexpensive and fuel-efficient with a “precisely-designed landing-gear system.” The MA60’s lineage harks to 1966, when Xi’an started developing the Y-7, a variant of a Soviet turboprop.

China’s global-aviation efforts since have been mixed. China in 1970 began developing a jetliner seating up to 178, later abandoning the program after deeming the jet uneconomical. A small utility turboprop developed in the 1980s won FAA approval and flies in a number of countries. China removed the Y-7 from commercial service after a crash in 2000 killed 49.

In 1988, Xi’an started developing a new Y-7 variant. The FAA in 1995 agreed to evaluate the CAAC’s certification process of that plane, a step toward potential U.S. approval. The FAA said that “this evaluation was stopped in mid-1996 after the applicant terminated the Y-7 certification program after design deficiencies were identified.”

That plane later evolved into the MA60, which Xi’an started delivering to Chinese carriers in 2000. In 2002, one operated by state-owned Wuhan Airlines belly-landed after its crew forgot to lower its gear, state-run Xinhua News Agency reported last year.

After the crash, Wuhan and other Chinese customers stopped operating the MA60 and canceled orders, with one of them citing the MA60’s subpar performance and poor profitability, Xinhua reported. China Eastern Airlines, Wuhan’s parent, didn’t respond to inquiries.

The MA60 wouldn’t operate commercially in China again until 2008, when Beijing-based Okay Airways deployed the plane.

Instead, China exported the MA60, starting with Zimbabwe in 2005.

In 2009, a Philippines MA60 operator suffered two runway overruns, writing off one plane, according to air-safety archive Aviation Herald, an independent accident database used by the United Nations. One was blamed on pilot inexperience with the craft, said Philippine authorities, who didn’t comment on the second. AirAsia Philippines, which bought the operator in 2013, said it didn’t acquire the MA60s in the deal and doesn’t know their whereabouts; fleet-tracking websites list them as stored in Manila.

In Bolivia, an MA60 operated by TAM, a military-run airline, belly-landed after the gear failed in 2011 and had another landing-gear failure 10 months later, according to Aviation Herald. TAM officials didn’t respond to inquiries.

Bolivian Defense Minister Reymi Ferreira said in a February local-radio interview the government had begun an investigation into the purchase of two MA60s for TAM. He said the planes were grounded for lack of parts and “technically, they haven’t given results.” A ministry spokeswoman confirmed the investigation.

Myanma Airways, which began buying MA60s in 2010, experienced three accidents, including Flight 309’s. Capt. Than Tun, managing director of the airline, now Myanmar National Airlines, said at least two related to low hydraulic pressure and, in one, pilots also erred by not going around for another landing and engaging a backup system.


Several years earlier, China had begun flagging problems with the MA60’s hydraulics.

In February 2008, the CAAC issued two “airworthiness directives”—notifications detailing mandatory safety actions—regarding a malfunctioning low-pressure warning in the hydraulics system, as well as endemic braking and landing-gear failures. A review of the CAAC’s database shows it posted more than 40 directives related to MA60 safety risks.

Some English translations in the database contain discrepancies. An April 2010 airworthiness directive in Chinese, for example, identifies safety issues with the MA60’s hydraulic-oil tank; the translation describes wing-flap malfunctions.

Under bilateral agreements, the CAAC must send relevant airworthiness directives in English to foreign counterparts signing the pacts. Myanmar’s head of airworthiness at the time of the 2013 Kawthaung accident, Mya Thant, said his department received only about four such directives from the CAAC during the years it operated the MA60. A review of China’s database suggests Myanmar should have received about 20.

Myanmar in 2013 permanently grounded its three MA60 planes for “public safety,” said Mr. Mya Thant, recently retired.

Indonesian authorities said they received only three directives. Indonesia’s Merpati Nusantara Airlines from 2007 accumulated 14 MA60s. The planes suffered six accidents before Merpati grounded them in 2013, Indonesian officials said. One crashed into the sea in 2011, killing 25. Indonesian investigators blamed pilot confusion and poor training, according to a 2012 report, and requested Xi’an revise its operating manuals into standard aviation English—renewing the request after another accident, according to a 2014 report. The reports said Xi’an promised to revise the manuals.

The 2014 report quoted senior airline managers saying a safety stop on a power-control lever frequently malfunctioned, making the plane hard to halt. It also said the lever didn’t resemble operating-manual illustrations. The CAAC acknowledged the power-lever problem in a letter to Indonesian investigators, the report said.

The CAAC addressed the power-lever problem in 2015 after a state-owned Joy Air MA60 crash-landed in China, injuring five. The regulator posted a notice on its website about efforts to respond to the issue. A foreign-airline executive said Xi’an issued a so-called service bulletin, a nonbinding notification. The Journal couldn’t locate a related airworthiness directive in the CAAC’s database.

In 2013, New Zealand issued a travel warning about the MA60 in Tonga, popular with New Zealand tourists. With so many accidents, it said, “travellers utilising the MA-60 do so at their own risk.” New Zealand suspended millions of dollars in aid to Tonga to protest the aircraft’s use.

Mr. Palu, the Tongan carrier’s CEO, said CAAC officials told him the plane was safe. He said the airline received all relevant airworthiness directives. Tonga in 2015 grounded its MA60, saying it was adopting New Zealand’s aviation code. New Zealand officials declined to comment.

In 2014, after China’s Joy and Okay airlines reported MA60 landing-gear troubles, a Chinese-language notice on the CAAC’s website said there were “inherent problems with the aircraft’s design and reliability.” Joy and Okay didn’t respond to safety-related inquiries.

Xi'an has delivered 101 MA60s, an AVIC executive told Xinhua in January. Xi'an has developed an improved version, the MA600. It hasn’t reported new MA60 orders since August 2014 but has continued deliveries.

The CAAC published reports on domestic safety incidents from 2008 to 2010 in an archive on its website, but this archive disappeared in 2014, said Aviation Herald editor Simon Hradecky. The CAAC occasionally posts domestic-accident information on its website, such as notices on the 2014 and 2015 MA60 incidents.

The CAAC, without commenting on whether it removed the archive, said in its written response that in providing data to learn from accidents, “it’s more helpful to share with the industry than to share with the public.”

—Anita Rachman and Patrick McGroarty contributed to this article.

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