Asia's poor safety performers tarnish airlines in the region with good records

David Learmount/LONDON

By the end of the 1990s, South Asia and Asia Pacific had earned a poor reputation for airline safety, although not all of the region's airlines deserved it, but they suffer for the sins of others, nevertheless.

The accident figures that reflect the region's safety experience for the decade raise the question of whether airlines that clearly have a poor corporate safety culture are independently culpable, or whether they merely reflect national attitudes to safety in general.

In accident numbers, Indonesia heads Asia Pacific's list of poor performers by a clear margin. Airclaims' World Airline Accident Survey records more than 50 accidents involving Indonesia's airlines during the past 10 years. Of these, 20 were fatal - two involving Indonesia's international flag carrier Garuda.

Worst performer

Indonesia's worst performer, which arguably tops the world's charts for the number of accidents in the 1990s, is domestic carrier Merpati Nusantara, which recorded 24 accidents during the period, 10 of them fatal. Its only challenger on a worldwide basis is the old, now divided, Soviet Aeroflot empire, a far larger organisation. Operating air links for the extensive Indonesian archipelago may be a formidable task, but an average 2.4 accidents - one of them fatal - each year is a high price for a single airline to pay.

Merpati is not alone as a poor performer among Asian regionals. Burma's Myanma Airlines has had nine accidents, including four fatal crashes, in the past 10 years, and Taiwan's Formosa Airlines also had four fatal accidents.

Merpati's size has varied, shrinking rapidly in the early 1990s, so a total number of flights for the decade is difficult to estimate. Projecting the figures reported to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), however, the maximum number of Merpati flights in the decade is a of about 1 million. That gives an accident rate of 10 fatal accidents per million flights.

The ICAO world average annual fatal accident rate for scheduled international passenger airlines in the 1990s was 1.5 per million flights. Garuda, more fairly compared with the ICAO figure than Merpati because it is a scheduled international carrier, had a rate of about 3.3 fatal accidents per million flights.

A comparison with a major US carrier which has not been free of fatal accidents puts things into perspective. American Airlines had two fatal accidents in the 1990s, but having operated about 7 million flights during the period, its fatal accident rate is fewer than 0.3 per million flights. Garuda's fatal accident rate is more than 10 times that.

Some Asia-Pacific carriers, such as Singapore Airlines (SIA), had no fatal accidents in the 1990s. SIA's subsidiary, Silk Air, however, suffered a controversial fatal crash of a Boeing 737 over Indonesia in 1997. The strong industry belief that the cause of the Silk Air crash was a disaffected captain's suicide will remain in currency unless the official accident report - still awaited after more than two years - can present evidence to dispel it.

China's record

China makes a poor showing, with 17 accidents, six of them fatal. Industry growth went into overdrive early in the decade, and this was accepted as the cause of the nightmare year suffered by the country's trunk carriers in 1993, with four major fatal accidents. After that, the government reined expansion back, and safety improved. The most recent fatal accidents were to China Southern in 1997 and China Southwest last year, so China's woes are not over yet (Airline accident survey for 1999, Flight International, 25-31 January, P46-55).

Taiwan's China Airlines (CAL) has the worst record among the major Asia-Pacific carriers, with 11 accidents, four of them fatal. Korean Air (KAL) is arguably on a par, having suffered 14 accidents - but only three fatal crashes - all since 1997. But the malaise which affected CAL showed up in the performance of Taiwan's regional carriers, too. They suffered six fatal accidents in the 1990s.

CAL suffered three fatal accidents to scheduled passenger flights during the past 10 years, and one to a Boeing 747 freighter. Since it operated 443,900 flights in the period, its accident rate is nine fatal accidents per million flights. For passenger operations it is nearly seven per million flights, almost five times worse than average.

For nervous passengers, Korean Air has clearly not been the airline of choice. But its statistics for the past 10 years reveal a more complex picture than a first glance indicates. Two of its three fatal accidents in the period involved freighters. So, being a large airline which has had only one fatal passenger aircraft accident (747-300 at Guam in 1997) among the nearly 1.3 million flights it has operated in the 1990s, its fatal accident rate, at 0.85 per million flights, is better than the world average. Its all-operations (including cargo flights) rate is poor at 3.9 fatal accidents per million flights. Meanwhile, KAL had a rate of nearly 11 accidents per million flights in the 1990s (fatal, plus non-fatal).

KAL's cargo-flight accident rate, however, is about 10 fatal accidents per million departures for the decade and was 100 fatal accidents per million, calculated on an annual basis for 1999, the year of both the freighter accidents.

Other carriers, like Thai Airways International, may have had only two major fatal accidents in the same period, but for a medium-sized fleet, this makes for a high accident rate. The airline operated 800,000 flights in the 1990s, so its fatal accident rate is 2.5 per million flights, which is unsettling for an airline with a good reputation for high-quality service.

Given that the Asia-Pacific airlines operate modern fleets and have an operational infrastructure better than is available in many other parts of the world, no reason is readily apparent as to why some of its airlines have such a poor safety record and others - such as the Japanese carriers, Cathay Pacific and SIA, for example - such high standards.

Japanese solutions

Japan Airlines suffered two disastrous crashes in the 1980s and did much corporate soul-searching, which has produced the desired result. Now Taiwan has decided that the key is to improve accident investigation and safety oversight and it has restructured the way it does both. The fruits have yet to show.

ICAO and the Flight Safety Foundation have encouraged the area to set up a regional safety forum, like Latin America's Pan American Aviation Safety Team, but this has been resisted. North America and Europe have similar forums to share safety information, to identify problems specific to the region and to develop policy.

Making decisions in isolation, however, is not a luxury granted to South Korea. US major Delta Air Lines, which used to codeshare with Korean, cancelled the arrangement last year and although Delta has announced in the past fortnight that it is to form an alliance with Korean - likely to be the Asia-Pacific partner in a Delta/Air France-led alliance - it is holding back from codesharing. Meanwhile, the US Federal Aviation Administration, spurred by KAL's recent accident record and its close relationship with Delta, has launched a policy of vetting safety standards of all foreign airlines that want to codeshare with US carriers.

President Kim Dae-jung has referred publicly to KAL as a "national disgrace" and the government has confiscated many of its routes. Top management has been replaced with a new team headed, since last April, by president and chief executive Shim Yi-taek, and the massive training organisation, FlightSafety Boeing, has been contracted to upgrade crews' skills. Whatever needs doing is not a quick fix, however, as evidenced by the fatal 747-200F crash at London Stansted, UK, in December.

Shim says that his management style is softer - listening to people and letting managers manage - than that of his forebears.

KAL and CAL are under pressure to improve and are acting out national policies to do so, but pressure from outside the region is greater than from within. Garuda and the Indonesian aviation authorities, in their strife-torn country, have not published specific plans to improve national airline safety performance.

The Asia-Pacific airlines suffer jointly from the consequences of public perceptions about travel in the region. They could do worse than to follow ICAO's advice to form a safety forum.

Source: Flight International