09/18/2007, 00.00
ASIA
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Questions raised over low cost flights after the Phuket air disaster

Official death toll reaches 90. It will be weeks before black boxes reveal cause of accident. In Asia tens of new budget airlines compete for market share. Experts point out that rules and regulations are not lax, warning travellers they should do their homework before stepping on a plane.

Bangkok (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The death toll from the airplane crash on the resort island of Phuket has reached 90, 36 Thais and 54 foreign tourists. Investigators are continuing their search for clues as to the cause of the accident as many experts ask questions about the safety of air carriers that offer low cost flights.

“We are still unable to say the cause of the accident,” Thai Transport Minister Thira Haocharoen said. “The officials have found the black boxes and will send them for analysis to the United States. Hopefully, we will learn in a few weeks the cause.”

Kajit Habnanonda, president of Orient-Thai Airlines, which owns One-Two-Go, claimed wind shear—a rapid change in wind speed or direction, which can have an impact on takeoffs and landings—was a possible cause of the accident.

Asia's airline industry is booming because of fast growing trade and tourist industry. Tens of budget airlines have been created, some offering rock-bottom prices, as low as US$ 20 for a one-way trip within Asia, excluding taxes.

But Asia has been hit by a rash of plane crashes and mishaps in recent years. From Cambodia to Japan, more than 200 people have died this year with little information released about the causes leading analysts to wonder about flight safety.

Indonesia's 51 airlines have come under close scrutiny. With a population of 235 million spread over more than 11,000 islands in an archipelago that stretches 5,000 kilometres, airline traffic is greater than in India.

This year an Adam Air plane with 102 people on board disappeared on New Year’s Day on a flight from Java to Sulawesi. In March a Garuda flight skidded off the runway on landing.

Because of this Europe has banned all 51 1of Indonesia’s air carriers which have been accused of hiring poorly trained pilots and overworking them.

The pilot of the plane that crashed in Phuket was Indonesian and was among scores who had left his home country in recent years for better-paying jobs with low-price carriers. The former air force pilot had worked for two now-defunct airlines in Indonesia.

But for analysts Indonesia is a case apart because the exceptional growth in air traffic has not been met by an equal growth in government safety control measures and enforcement.

Many airports in the region are not very safe, especially under extreme weather conditions. The Phuket runway is one example; landing is demanding because the airport is surrounded by mountains.

For many experts it would be wrong though to paint the entire low-cost air industry with the same brush. Perceptions that budget airlines are less safe are not borne out by facts. The record of other international airlines is no different since they operate within systems dictated by international and national regulatory authorities.

Experts note that the old principle ‘buyer bewares’ applies here as well. It is important that travellers do their homework when choosing flights, instead of just going with the cheapest fare.

For example, Orient-Thai Airlines has had its share of problems in recent years in Japan and South Korea and had received a warning for having outdated passenger safety manuals.

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