Although the PLAAF and its China United subsidiary would get the first 4 TU-154s in China the CAAC itself would acquire some of this first batch of TU-154s too. In fact it got the lion's share with thirteen aircraft joining in 1985/86. They didn't remain with the CAAC for very long however due to the changes afoot in the Chinese industry.
Further deliveries would start in 1988 but by this time CAAC was beginning to break up and 5 went directly to China Southwest Airlines. A last five would be bought in 1989 and 1990 for a total of 22 purely civilian TU-154Ms to this point.
A single frame, B-2620, does suggest it was operated briefly by Air China in 1989 but I suspect that it merely passed through their hands going to China Northwest.
Xian based China Northwest, from Shaanxi province, acquired the largest portion of the reallocated TU-154s, operating at least 11. China Xinjiang from the even more remote city of Urumqi also got 5. As already mentioned China Southwest, from Chengdu, also got 5.
Another pair of TU-154s would find themselves in operation in China, however these were both leased Aeroflot examples. They joined Air Great Wall in 1992. This small airline was actually formed by the CAAC Flying College and operated from Chongqing in Sichuan province. I'm not sure when they were returned however in 1995 the airline acquired some ex-CAAC 737-200s which I assume replaced the trijets?
The Chinese industry in the early 1990s was a bit of a mess. The creation of the separate airlines and expansion of both the air market and China’s economy created year on year growth of 30% in the early 1990s, which the underfunded infrastructure struggled to sustain. This had been exacerbated by a change in the CAAC’s decentralisation of airport operations which meant that 70% of airport construction costs would be shouldered by local governments.
In July 1994 it was announced that no further new aircraft would be ordered for at least eighteen months and that CAAC would stop issuing licenses for new airlines. The money saved was instead invested into air traffic control and safety measures. This was in response to a number of accidents, which in only a few years had killed almost four hundred people.
The crashes included aircraft of Western construction (in 1993 alone there were three write-offs, involving a China Northwest BAe 146-300, a China Eastern MD-82 and a China Northern MD-82 whilst an incident involving a China Eastern MD-11 also killed two people) but also Soviet types. On June 6, 1994 a China Northwest TU-154M crashed near Xian killing all 146 passengers aboard. Chinese air safety certainly improved dramatically throughout the rest of the 1990s with only single crashes in 1997 and 1999 causing fatalities. Unfortunately for the TU-154 it was involved once again.
The crash of China Southwest flight 4509 on February 24 1999 which killed all 61 people aboard resulted in the removal from service of all TU-154s in China, though the crash itself was caused by a maintenance error. The Soviet era trijet was by the late 90s just seen as too old and something of a liability.
China Northwest replaced its TU-154s with A320s, China Xinjiang with 757s and China Southwest with 737-800s. The Chinese TU-154 fleet could be seen in storage around China for several years but gradually the aircraft were sold on to Ukrainian and Russian operators.
There is one airline that operated TU-154s in China so far I have neglected. That is Sichuan Airlines, which as late as 1992 had the 'privilege' of starting jet operations with the sturdy Tupolev. We'll take a look at them in part 3.
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: