Taiwan’s Unfriendly Skies

The 157 passengers aboard a China Airlines Boeing 737-800 got off lucky Monday. Their plane was close enough to the gate that they all got out of the aircraft after its left engine exploded at Naha Airport in Okinawa. But far too many people haven’t been so fortunate. Since 1970, the Taiwanese carrier has been involved in at least 10 crashes that have involved fatalities.

In Okinawa, the plane ended up lying on its side as flames and smoke billowed out of it. According to witnesses on the ground, the crew had just docked at the gate when ground staff told them it was on fire.

What is it about China Airlines? It is Taiwan’s largest airline and flag carrier, owned by the China Aviation Development Foundation, which belongs to the government of the Republic of China. And it has a spectacular record of disaster over the last 37 years. Its “full loss equivalent” rating, or the sum of the proportion of passengers killed for each fatal event, at 6.23 is the highest of any other East Asian airline.

Its record for FLEs, as they are called by airsafe.com, a consumer awareness group, is worse than that for Garuda Indonesia, the whipping boy of airline analysts across the world. Such patrician carriers as Singapore Airlines International and Cathay Pacific have records below 1.0. Qantas has a record of zero. According to another measure, since 1970, China Air has averaged 4.16 fatal events per million flights against a worldwide average under 1.

In the current mishap, the airline could have been the unlucky recipient of somebody else’s negligence – a chunk of debris on the Naha runway might have somehow gotten into the engine of the 737-300, a relatively new plane. It could have been the company with which China Air contracts for its maintenance. Or it could have been negligence on the part of the ground crew. The engine exploded after the plane had landed, according to the transport ministry, and terrorism was ruled out as a cause. Shares of China Airlines fell as much as 3.9 percent to NT$12.50 and traded at NT$13.05 as of 11 a.m. in Taipei.

But since 1970, China Air has been the unlucky recipient of disasters like these:

August 1970: China Airlines YS11 is on final approach in bad weather into Taipei when the plane hits a ridge 800 meters from the runway. Two of the five crew members and 12 of the 26 passengers die.

November 1971; China Airlines Caravelle is believed to have been destroyed by a bomb over the Formosa Strait. All 17 passengers and eight crew members are killed.

February 1980; China Airlines 707-300 is on final approach into Manila Airport in a “steep and unstablized approach,” lands hard short of the runway, rips off two engines and parts of a wing. Two of 122 passengers are killed.

February 1986; China Airlines 737-200 touches down but aborts landing in the Pescadores Islands, Taiwan. All six passengers and seven crew members are killed in the attempt to go around.

October 1989: China Airlines 737-200 hits cloud-shrouded high ground at 2130 meters in “incorrect takeoff procedure” near Hualien, Taiwan. All seven crew members and 49 passengers are killed.

April 1994; China Airlines A300-600 stalls and crashes due to crew errors during approach to Nagoya, Japan. All 15 crew and 249 of the 264 passengers are killed.

February 1998; China Airlines A300-600 crashes into a residential area in Taoyuan short of the runway during a second landing attempt in bad weather. All 15 crew and 182 passengers plus seven persons on the ground are killed.

August 1999; China Airlines MD11 drags a wing and crashes at Chek Lap Kok in Hong Kong during an attempt to land in a typhoon. The aircraft comes to rest upside down and on fire. Three of the 300 passengers are killed.

May 2002. China Airlines 747-200 breaks up in flight near the Penghu Islands, Taiwan about 20 minutes into a flight from Taipei to Hong Kong while the aircraft was just above 30,000 feet. No distress signal or other communication was received prior to the crash that killed all 19 crew members and 206 passengers.

There have been lesser incidents. In 1985, a Boeing 747 went out of control, recovered, and managed an emergency landing at San Francisco International Airport. In 1993, another China Air 747 touched down more than two thirds of the way down the runway at Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak Airport and ended up in the water. All 396 aboard lived to tell about it. In 2002, a China Air flight took off from a taxiway in Alaska, nicked an embankment on the way out and damaged its landing gear, although it was able to land safely.

Several factors contributed to the problems. Heavy maintenance for several years was contracted to a shadowy firm in Tainan that had formerly belonged to the US Central Intelligence Agency. Also, the airline’s pilots were largely drawn from the ranks of the republic’s air force, and they tended to fly like air force pilots, taking chances they needn’t take.

China Air has been working hard to correct its faults, analysts say. The airline brought in expatriate pilots several years ago as captains to alleviate what had become known as an “ex air-force flying club.” The first few years, the analyst said, were trying. “I talked to one (expatriate) pilot who said ‘you have to remember at all times that the guy in the right-hand seat is trying to kill you.”

It also sent young pilots off to other countries, particularly Australia, “to learn the proper way of flying,” he says, although they were frustrated when they came back because seniority kept them in the co-pilot’s seat.

The May 2002 disintegration was not due to pilot error, and an investigation concluded that faulty repair by a contractor of the aircraft after it dragged its tail on an earlier takeoff resulted in the disintegration.

To some extent, says, an airline analyst, the latest incident is bad luck. It takes about five years, the analyst says, for the bad memories of airline incompetence and disaster to fade and restore passenger confidence. Unfortunately, the last disaster for China Air was just three months more than five years ago.