Fiery End to Phuket-Bound Plane

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A Thai-owned budget airliner filled with foreign tourists crashed amid bad weather and low visibility on Thailand’s resort island of Phuket on Sunday afternoon, killing more than 80 and leaving dozens wounded.

Flight OG269 operated by privately run no-frills airline One-Two-Go received permission to abort the landing at the last minute, but the McDonnell Douglas MD-82 jet dropped from the sky and split into two as it smashed into trees and a wall before bursting into flames, news reports said. About 44 of the 128 passengers and crew members on board were Thai nationals, with foreigners comprising the rest.

“I've flown on many airplanes before and I can say there was something strange about our landing. We seemed to drop down too fast,” survivor Nong Khaonuan told The Nation TV.

The crash will likely send shockwaves through Thailand’s tourism industry, which had just fully recovered from the December 2004 tsunami that killed thousands. It will also raise questions over the safety of the country’s many budget airlines that sprung up after deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s government adopted an “open skies” policy in 2002.

Thaksin’s policy of opening the skies to competition gave private operators access to traffic rights that were previously held exclusively by the national carrier, Thai Airways. Among the beneficiaries was Thai AirAsia, a joint venture between Malaysian budget airline AirAsia and Shin Corp, which was owned by Thaksin’s family at the time.

Orient Thai Airlines CEO Udom Tantiprasongchai also jumped on the opportunity, establishing One-Two-Go to fly various domestic routes, including to holiday destinations Phuket and Chiang Mai.

The crash will be another setback for Udom, who has plenty of experience with airlines but not too much success. His first venture, Cambodia International Airlines, folded a few years after it launched in 1990.

He then formed Orient Thai in 1995, flying domestic routes from Chiang Mai to provincial locations like Hat Yai in the south and Khon Kaen and Udon Thani in the northeast. The airline lost its license in 1997 after the government planned to set up a second national carrier, and the airline was transformed into a charter service.

Then came Thaksin’s open skies policy and suddenly Orient Thai was free to fly domestic routes with no restrictions. It set up routes to Phuket, Chiang Mai, Bangkok and other provincial destinations, and launched Thailand’s first budget carrier One-Two-Go in December 2003.

Although it’s too early to determine the cause of the crash, news reports first raised questions about Orient Thai’s safety a decade ago, although they were vigorously disputed by Udom. In 1997, Aviation Department director-general Srisuk Chantrangsu said Orient Thai did not keep clear flight records and failed to conduct emergency training sessions for its pilots, which are required every six months.

Either way, One-Two-Go’s safety record was never specifically questioned, even though reports have surfaced concerning the safety of Thailand’s budget airlines as a whole. Indeed, at the time it was very easy to set up an airline in Thailand as investors needed just 50 million baht in registered capital and the country did not mandate stringent safety requirements adopted in other countries. Moreover, politicians were known to peddle influence to get an aviation license approved.

By mid-2004, the government had issued 23 licenses for scheduled and charter-service airlines, although only nine were in use. The proliferation of airlines led to calls for reform. The required registered capital for an airline company jumped to 200 million baht, but no other serious safety precautions were taken.

Safety concerns came to the fore in 2005 when budget airline Phuket Air faced a slew of troubles. It was banned from flying in England, France, the Netherlands and eventually all of Europe due to serious mechanical flaws with its planes. In Thailand, it had five twin-engine prop planes grounded after one skidded off the runway in Mae Sot, stopping just before it plowed into a nearby gas station.

A Bangkok Post report in 2005 blamed the problems with Phuket Air and other airlines on lax enforcement of regulations by the Transport Ministry and Aviation Department. About 60% of the work on annual aircraft inspections is based on documents sent by the airlines instead of onsite observance, the report said, and the limited staff focused only on planes suspected of having serious problems.

“The department is seriously understaffed, with only seven or eight officials responsible for aircraft safety,” said the Post, quoting a source in the Civil Aviation department.

Moreover, the report said, politicians sometimes urged regulators to bend the rules on inspections, putting officials in an “awkward position.” Unnamed airline executives were quoted saying that many minor safety incidents often go unreported.

The weeks to come will likely shed more light on the reasons for Sunday’s One-Two-Go crash, and the Thai press will surely grill the Aviation Department on any shortcuts it might be taking. For the past year, safety questions swirled around the runway of Bangkok’s newly opened Suvarnabhumi airport, but the airplanes themselves had been largely given a pass.

What’s worse is that the incident may scare away tourists just as the high season is set to get underway. Thailand has been perpetually pounded with bad news for the tourism industry, from SARS to bird flu to the December 2004 tsunami to the bombs in Bangkok last New Year’s Eve. Yet each time, the country has proved resilient.

In the first nine months of the year, passenger volume through Phuket airport had jumped 62.55% year-on-year to 3.37 million, and landings and takeoffs had risen nearly 30% to more than 22,000. Five million visitors were projected for next year.

Now that target may be in jeopardy if authorities don’t act quickly to ensure travelers that Thailand is not another Indonesia when it comes to aircraft safety.