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Asian Air Crashes Trigger Safety Stir

All major crashes this year were in Asia. Possible causes: over-expansion, culture.

A series of airline accidents in Asia has raised safety concerns among industry officials and made passengers more careful in choosing carriers in the region.

All major air disasters reported worldwide so far this year have been in Asia and on Asian airlines. The spate of disasters seems to mirror the plunging economies of the region: 373 people have been killed in five airline crashes across Asia during the first three months of 1998.

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Looking for causes, aviation experts suggest that increased passenger demand in recent years, and the resulting multiplication of aircraft in the skies, may have stretched some airline companies too far.

"The resources to support the increase in traffic just haven't kept pace," says an Asian airline official in Singapore, who requested anonymity. "Some pilots are perhaps not fully familiar with the technology."

For airlines, discussing safety publicly remains taboo, perhaps dampening debate over the issue.

Aviation officials worry that if air travel looks anything less than 100 percent safe, passengers will panic. But accidents have continued, despite stringent safety procedures. On Feb. 16, a China Airlines A300-600 crashed into a residential area just short of the runway in Taipei, killing all 15 crew members and 182 passengers. Pilot fatigue, it turns out, may have been the cause.

Chu Fong-Chi, a Taiwan lawmaker, reported earlier this week that China Airlines pilot Kang Lung-ling had only three days rest in the month prior to the fatal flight, instead of the usual 15 days. Mr. Chu said that rules limiting flying hours and training requirements were regularly flouted at China Airlines.

Some worry that airlines may be cutting corners where they shouldn't. The current economic downturn in the Asia Pacific region now means that regional airlines will have to work that much harder, and perhaps cut costs, to stay profitable. That prospect has raised concerns among frequent fliers here. "After 20 years of flying with Garuda Indonesia, I have decided to look for a new carrier just because I can't believe the economic crisis won't affect safety," comments an American fashion designer who shuttles between the US and Indonesia.

"Passengers are definitely being more selective," says Roland Picato, a French travel agent operating out of Bangkok. "They are asking if this or that company is safe, and they want to know what kind of aircraft they will be flying in."

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Lalith Shah, regional representative of the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), is more reassuring. He asserts that there is no connection between Asia's economic woes and airline safety. While admitting that "safety has been a major concern because of the high growth in traffic," he adds that "there is a minimum standard of safety imposed by the ICAO."

"It's still too early to link the economic downturn in Asia to the recent accidents," agrees Ross Hamory, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) director for the Asia Pacific region.

"Airlines don't cut back on the essentials. The only things they will cut back on are the luxuries, like passenger phones and in-flight menus," adds a Thai aviation official in Bangkok.

Much of the blame has fallen on the pilots. "If you look at most accidents, they are usually a result of pilot error," says Mr. Hamory. "There are now very few mechanical failures, so that focuses the emphasis on the crew."

The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently suggested that the crash of a Korean Airlines 747 on the Pacific island of Guam in August last year was probably an example of "controlled flight into terrain," the technical term for "when a pilot flies a perfectly good aircraft into the ground."

Culture of deference

Cultural issues have also taken center stage. Experts claim that cockpit interaction between the captain and his co-pilot is often too rigid.

"In Asia, the captain is the unchallenged boss. The hierarchical relationship between pilot and co-pilot is very important. This means that if the co-pilot spots an abnormality, he may hesitate to point it out for fear of challenging the captain's authority," explains a European aviation analyst in Bangkok.

To foster dialogue between the captain and his co-pilot, some Asian airlines have already adopted American-style cockpit training, aimed at encouraging more open decisionmaking.

Poor English in the cockpit

Language is another potential stumbling block. While English is the recognized language of international air traffic control, some Asian pilots are not fully proficient. In China, which doesn't publicize domestic air accidents, the Civil Aviation Authority of China has reported that 80 percent of China's 7,500 pilots had a poor understanding of English.

One result of Asia's recent air accidents is a growing awareness of the need to improve safety.

Indeed, despite the shortcoming in some areas of aviation in Asia, which has put its safety record slightly behind those of the US and Europe, it is still far ahead of Africa and Latin America.

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