Taiwan Airline Crash Highlights Safety Challenges in Rapidly Growing Market

TVBS  / AP Photo

The deadly crash of a TransAsia plane into a river in Taiwan is again focusing the world’s attention on the safety challenges facing fast-growing Asian airlines.

TransAsia has been adding new routes rapidly since the Taiwanese
carrier went public in 2011. TransAsia and others like it are rushing to
keep up with a travel boom driven by the region’s growing middle class.
The ease and increasing affordability of flying helps fuel economic
growth and a better lifestyle for Asian consumers. But as airlines carry
more passengers across increasingly crowded skies, they are also racing
to train enough pilots.
“The demand is almost exceeding the supply,” says John M. Cox, who
spent 25 years flying for US Airways and is now CEO of consultancy
Safety Operating Systems.
Quickly-growing airlines need to maintain standards as they hire more
pilots, maintenance workers, dispatchers and flight attendants. Cox
says the Asian carriers are currently meeting those marks, but it’s a
big challenge.
TransAsia Airways Flight 235 crashed Wednesday shortly after takeoff
from Taipei, Taiwan, with 58 people aboard. Dramatic video from a car’s
dashboard camera captured the moment that the plane, tilting madly,
clipped a bridge before landing in a shallow river. At least 26 people
were killed.
Seventh Accident in 20 Years
It was the second fatal accident in just over six months
for the airline and its seventh serious accident in the past two
decades, according aerospace publication Flightglobal. It comes barely a
month after one of Indonesian carrier AirAsia planes crashed into the
Java Sea traveling from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore, killing all
162 aboard.
As Southeast Asia’s economies grow, more people have money to travel
and airlines are adding planes to whisk them across the region.
Aircraft manufactures Airbus, ATR, Boeing, Bombardier and Embraer
delivered a whopping 1,543 new planes to airlines last year. That means a
total of 30 planes rolled off their collective assembly lines every
week — the fastest production rate in the history of commercial
Most of those aircraft went to Asia.
TransAsia Airways, Taiwan’s third-biggest airline, has been part of
that buying spree. The airline was founded in 1951 but has undergone a
growth spurt following its market debut on the Taiwan stock exchange in
2011. It has added about two dozen routes to mainland China and other
Asian cities. TransAsia flies about 20 planes from its base at Taipei’s
Sungshan Airport and has enough new aircraft orders to double its fleet
within five years.
The turboprop plane that crashed Wednesday was less than a year old,
according to Ascend, an aviation consultancy. It is an ATR 72-600, made
by a joint venture of Airbus Group and Italy’s Alenia Aermacchi. The
aircraft was powered by two Pratt & Whitney PW100-127M engines.
TransAsia also flies Airbus jets on some short-haul routes around Asia.
The airline’s most serious crash occurred last July, when 48 people
were killed after another turboprop plane crashed on an island off
mainland China during stormy weather.
It’s too soon to say what might have caused Wednesday’s crash.
Keith McGuire, a former accident investigator for the National
Transportation Safety Board, says rapid growth can strain an airline’s
pilot training and maintenance, but carriers with good safety and
training programs can handle it.
“There is a misconception that just because an airline is new or,
they are growing rapidly, therefore they are inherently unsafe.
Investigators don’t look at it that way,” he says.
And even with this crash, flying in Asia remains safe. There are
89,000 daily flights around the world, according to flight tracking site
FlightAware, including 25,000 in Asia. More than 99.9 percent of those
land safely.
Still, experts are concerned because of the region’s rapid growth.
There are currently 1,600 aircraft operating in Southeast Asia,
Brendan Sobie, analyst at the CAPA Centre for Aviation, a consultancy in
Sydney, told The Associated Press in December. He said Asia is the only
region of the world where there are as many aircraft on order as
already in service, “so the growth seems set to continue.”
For each new plane, airlines need to hire and train at least 10 to 12
pilots, sometimes more, according to industry experts. The figure is so
high because planes often fly throughout the day and night, seven days a
week, while pilots need sleep and days off.
Right now, Asia-Pacific accounts for 31 percent of global air
passenger traffic, according to the industry’s trade group, the
International Air Transport Association. Within two decades, that figure
is forecast to jump to 42 percent, as Asia adds an extra 1.8 billion
annual passengers for an overall market size of 2.9 billion.
Boeing projects that the Asia-Pacific region will need 216,000 new
pilots in the next 20 years, the most of any region in the world,
accounting for 40 percent of the global pilot demand.
To put that in perspective, there are about 104,000 pilots working in
the United States, flying everything from crop dusters to jumbo jets,
according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“The exponential growth in and the demand for air travel were not
anticipated by many of the governments in the region,” Shukor Yusof,
founder of the Malaysia-based aviation research firm Endau Analytics
said in December. “And so you’re seeing a lack of infrastructure,
airports and pilots because nobody expected low-cost travel would have
taken off as quickly, as rapidly, and would be as lucrative as it is
The U.S. has many pilot-training facilities, from universities to
specialized flying schools. And it has a farm system of regional
carriers that train and churn out experienced pilots for the largest
airlines. But Asia, home to fast-growing carriers such as AirAsia,
Indonesia’s Lion Air and India’s Jet Airways, doesn’t have enough
training programs for all the pilots it needs, David Greenberg, a former
Delta Air Lines executive who also oversaw pilot training and safety at
Korean Air, told The Associated Press in December.
Pilot Poaching
The result, Greenberg said, has been pilot poaching — carriers in the
Middle East and Asia have recruited in the U.S., Canada, Australia and
Europe to fill their cockpits.
Greenberg said that while he was at Korean Air, 10 percent of the
carrier’s captains were foreigners who came from 28 different countries.
Meanwhile, many pilots, engineers and technicians in Southeast Asia
have been lured to more attractive jobs in the Middle East, which boast
higher salaries and the opportunity to fly in sleek new aircraft.
The shortage of trained staff means there are fewer workers to juggle an ever-growing workload — and that comes with risks.
Still, the aviation industry has generally done an amazing job of
improving safety while doubling the number of passengers in the past 15
In 2013, 3.1 billion passengers flew globally, twice the total of
1999. Yet the chances of dying in a plane crash were much lower.
Since 2000, there were less than three fatalities per 10 million
passengers, according to an Associated Press analysis of crash data
provided by consultancy Ascend. In the 1990s, there were nearly eight;
during the 1980s there were 11; and the 1970s had 26 deaths per 10
million passengers.
That is not to say some parts of the world aren’t more dangerous than
others. The accident rate in Africa, for instance, is nearly five times
that of the worldwide average, according to the International Civil
Aviation Organization, part of the United Nations.
Koenig reported from Dallas.

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