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Latest Crash Exposes Dangerously Low Standards for Airline Pilots in Asia

The recent crash in Taiwan was TransAsia’s second in seven months and the latest of many in Asia, highlighting safety gaps in the region's booming airline industry.

by John Dyer
Feb 12 2015, 10:05am

Photo by Wally Santana/AP

The TransAsia Airways turboprop plane that dramatically clipped a highway bridge in Taipei before crashing into the Keelung River last week was the latest in a string of tragic incidents that may reveal something rotten within Asia's booming airline industry.

On Wednesday, Taiwanese regulators disclosed that 10 out of 49 TransAsia pilots had failed their emergency proficiency tests, while another 19 had yet to take the exams and were being grounded until they had passed them.

Of the 58 passengers on board TransAsia Flight 235 when it crashed on February 4, 42 died, 15 survived, and one is missing.

The cause of the crash is still under investigation. It's unknown whether the pilot passed his emergency proficiency test, but he appears to have performed heroically during the crash, steering the plane away from the elevated highway before slamming into the river. It's not clear yet if the engine stalled, but reports said the aircraft was new and had been serviced recently.

After the AirAsia disaster, industry experts say it's time to overhaul air safety standards. Read more here.

Still, the deadly accident was TransAsia's second in seven months and the latest of many tragic flights in the region. Last year, 48 TransAsia passengers died as their plane made an emergency landing in a typhoon. Authorities are still determining the cause of the crash, but they've said it wasn't due to bad weather.

The calamity came on the heels of 162 passengers and crew losing their lives in December when Indonesia AirAsia Flight 8501 fell out of the sky during a trip from Indonesia to Singapore. In that tragedy, which is also still under investigation, it appears the plane became boxed in by air traffic amid turbulence.

Investigators also still haven't found Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Late last month, after a year of intense, morbid international media coverage, the Malaysian government officially declared that the disappearance of the airliner over the Indian Ocean was an accident. It carried 239 passengers and crew.

The string of bad news doesn't surprise Christopher Tang, a University of California at Los Angeles professor and former business school dean at the National University of Singapore.

"I do not fly domestic flights in Asia," Tang told VICE News. Even when flying within China, he prefers to only use international carriers that observe Federal Aviation Administration standards because they fly to the United States.

Video shows TransAsia flight crashing into river. Read more here. 

Tang believes that the problem in Asia stems from too much uncontrolled growth.

A recent Boeing study determined that Asia would experience the biggest growth in pilot demand over the next 20 years, requiring the recruitment of 216,000 pilots who would represent roughly 40 percent of the world's new aviators in that span. That's more than double the number of new pilots North America is expected to require in the same period.

It's obvious why Asia will need more pilots. China, Vietnam, and other countries that were mired in poverty for much of the 20th Century are now booming economically. Asians who are becoming wealthier want to travel more.

Two decades ago, nearly near two-thirds of air traffic worldwide occurred in Europe and North America, according to Boeing. That number is predicated to shrink to less than 40 percent in the next two decades. By then, China will overtake the US as the world's biggest air passenger market, according to the International Air Transport Association, with India and Indonesia joining the top five markets alongside the US and Brazil.

Asian governments will likely continue to build airports at a feverish pace, and air carriers are expected to buy more planes and run more routes to accommodate the influx of new passengers.

"Because the market is growing in Asia, a lot of airlines think this is an opportunity to facilitate inter-Asia travel," Tang said. "There is money to be made. Governments are all for it. Everybody has good intentions. But they are not thinking about the risks."

New footage allegedly shows fiery aftermath of MH17 crash in Ukraine. Read more here. 

More airports, more planes, and more air routes don't necessarily lead to more well-trained pilots like US Airways Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who had 20,000 hours of flight experience when he executed an emergency water landing in the Hudson River in 2009. 

The big problem, according to Tang, is that developing countries like China and Vietnam and developed countries like Japan and Australia don't have any uniform standards for training pilots. It's mix of different training styles, flight-hour requirements, and other rules for putting people in cockpits.

The TransAsia Flight 235 disaster and others should prompt regulators throughout Asia to get together and agree on minimum standards for pilots entering each other's air space, he said. In the meantime, they need to slow the pace of growth in the industry.

"This is a wakeup call," Tang said. "This is about public safety."

Unfortunately, he wasn't particularly optimistic that countries with divergent interests and historical enmities like China and Japan could agree on pilot standards.

Tang noted that it's possible to take $50 flights between major, far-flung Asian cities. He thought that was crazy.

"If they are charging you $50," he said, "how much are they paying the pilots?"

Follow John Dyer on Twitter: @johnjdyerjr