Two months before the fatal crash of Asiana Airlines Inc. (020560) jet in San Francisco, the South Korean government asked the carrier to improve pilot training and strengthen safety measures, a transport ministry official said.
Asiana submitted its plan to the government on improving its operations after authorities evaluated as many as 15 processes including aircraft maintenance at South Korea’s second-biggest airline, Kwon Yong Bok, director general of aviation safety policy at the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, said. The carrier was preparing to implement the new measures when the accident happened, Kwon said.
“Asiana was growing quickly and we felt there was a need to make sure proper measures for safety were in place,” Kwon said in a July 16 interview in Sejong, near Seoul. “You could end up putting a lot of pressure on your existing operations if you don’t adjust them to changes. Asiana had reached a point where they needed to adopt a new system to support its growth and ensure safety.”
South Korea plans to tighten aviation rules as the July 6 crash-landing of Asiana’s Boeing Co. (BA) 777 triggered concerns about the nation’s safety regulations. The accident also dented the Seoul-based company’s reputation as one of the top carriers in the world for service. U.S. investigators are examining the manual flying skills and cockpit teamwork among the pilots of Flight 214 as they probe reasons for the crash.
“We are consistently making efforts to improve the safety of our operations,” Lee Hyo Min, an Asiana spokeswoman, said. The carrier met with the ministry officials earlier this year on safety and the evaluation of its operations was carried out under a joint project with the government, she said. Lee declined to comment on Kwon’s remarks.
Asiana shares dropped 1 percent to close at 4,710 won in Seoul, the lowest price since April 2010. The stock has fallen 24 percent this year, compared with a 6.1 percent decline in South Korea’s benchmark Kospi index.
South Korea started the consulting program for airlines this year as a preemptive step to avoid incidents, Kwon said. The government evaluated Asiana’s operations between Feb. 6 and April 30 as the carrier is expected to increase its fleet by 22 percent by 2017.
The plan Asiana submitted to the government included centralizing the carrier’s aircraft management systems as well as setting up a department this year to oversee aircraft maintenance, according to a July 16 statement from the ministry. The airline also pledged to expand and centralize its safety inspection team by 2015.
The airline said it would carry out more inflight pilot evaluations and strengthen training of its new pilots on planes, according to the ministry. It will also improve performance evaluation of all its flights and have a centralized cargo management.
The ministry also advised two low-fare carriers, Eastar Jet Co. and Jeju Air Inc., in January and in May as they get their maintenance done from overseas companies, Kwon said.
The government told Jeju Air to ensure that it follows safety manuals to prevent incidents, the carrier said in an e-mailed response to Bloomberg News. Two calls to the planning department at Eastar in Seoul were unanswered.
On July 6, the Asiana Boeing 777 crashed as it struck a seawall short of a runway at San Francisco International Airport, slammed to the ground and spun off the tarmac. Three people were killed while more than 300 survived the wreck, the first fatal airline accident in the U.S. since 2009.
The plane was coming in too low and had gotten almost 40 miles an hour slower than the target approach speed when its landing gear and tail struck the seawall, according to U.S. National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman.
Pilots were being told by air-traffic controllers to use visual approaches the day of the accident because the airport’s glide slope, which helps line up the correct path to the runway, was closed for construction, Hersman said last week.
On July 15, South Korean authorities met the airline’s officials, Kwon said. After the meeting, Asiana said it plans to conduct special training for all its pilots on landing on visual approach and will strengthen training on landing at airports that lack systems to help planes touch down, according to Kwon.
Asiana also pledged to adopt fatigue risk management systems and improve communication in the cockpit, Kwon said. The airline said it will open its second hangar at Incheon airport next month, which will help increase its aircraft maintenance capability, according to the official.
The airline increased the number of flights by 16 percent and added 10 more planes in the last three years as it expanded services to the U.S., Europe and other regions, the ministry said.
Asiana will hire 118 pilots, 100 maintenance staff and 116 cabin crew every year until 2016 as it aims to have 96 planes by 2017 from 79 at the end of last year, the ministry said. The carrier will receive four more aircraft this year and plans to add services to Jakarta and Bali in Indonesia as early as this week. It currently flies to 83 cities.
Asiana had the world’s eighth-oldest fleet, with an average age of 12.6 years, according to a Bloomberg Industries report in January. Air Arabia had the youngest at 3 years. The Korean carrier in January 2011 ordered six Airbus SAS A380 superjumbos, after purchasing 30 A350s from the Toulouse, France-based planemaker in 2008.
The July 6 accident was Asiana’s worst since 1993, when a Boeing 737 crashed in Mokpo, south of Seoul, killing 66 people, according to the National Archives of Korea. Asiana’s previous disaster was the crash of its cargo freighter in the sea south of Jeju island in July 2011.
Asiana is one of only seven carriers in the world with a five-star rating for services from Skytrax, which also named it airline of the year in 2010. Emirates Airline was last month named the best airline in the world by Skytrax and Asiana fifth-best.
“One tends to lose out more if you don’t take preemptive steps to ensure safety,” Kwon said. “You spend so much time building your image and integrity, but it takes only one incident to wipe it all out.”
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