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From Our Correspondent: Making Air Travel Safer
An international expert says Asia must change

November 14, 2000
Web posted at 1:00 p.m. Hong Kong time, 1:00 a.m. EDT

In the wake of Singapore Airlines SQ006 crash at Chiang Kai-shek International Airport in Taipei, questions are being asked about air safety in Asia. How could an experienced pilot from one of the world's most respected airlines make a mistake in steering his aircraft on to a closed runway? Are safety standards in the region getting lax? Are pilots to blame for recent crashes in Asia? Can regulators or airlines do something to make air travel in Asia safer? Are cultural problems to blame for chaos in the cockpit? I recently talked to Bart Bakker, an experienced former commercial airline pilot and now an aviation safety expert who heads Global Aero Consultancy in Amsterdam. Excerpts from the interview:

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We have seen a series of air accidents in China, Taiwan, Korea and Indonesia over the past five years, the latest of which is the Singapore Airlines crash in Taipei. Why have there been more accidents in Asia than in any other region of the world?
I don't think air travel is becoming less safe in Asia or anywhere else in the world, but you have to look at things in a proper perspective. Globally, we are seeing phenomenal growth in air traffic. There are many more planes flying today than, say, 10 years ago. But as the level of safety remains the same, the number of accidents worldwide is increasing. In Asia, you have seen an exponential increase in air traffic over the past decade as well as an influx of glass-cockpit airliners [with computer screens] and young, less experienced pilots, or older, experienced "classic aircraft" captains with different cultural backgrounds. This is contributing to some additional safety problems. I believe a review of training concepts and strict, transparent procedures, including crew-resource management, are necessary to provide a solid safety base. In Asian cultures, the human factor is a difficult item: the "flatter" hierarchy of the West is not easily adaptable [in the cockpit, where the captain considers himself the ultimate boss], especially in "pressing" situations when [sharing of responsibility between the flight crew] can be, and often is, easily forgotten.

Is there something that regulators, safety organizations, aircraft manufacturers or Asian airlines can do to make air travel safer in Asia?
Unfortunately, the old training concepts for air crews are based on Western culture. With so many planes now flying in Asia and growing number of Asian pilots now commanding flights, I think it is about time that these methods should be localized for easier acceptance, without losing the essential safety nets of crew-resource management and human factors. As to whether stringent regulations are necessary, I believe the regulators in the region should also receive the same training possibilities as the industry, in order to be on similar level. Also, the crew-resource management between the authorities and the industry should be reviewed, [to make] the regulators and the operators partners in safety, and not the old hierarchy of "overseers and chiefs" only interested in punishment. It took and still takes a huge effort in the Western world to achieve this, so it will be a far bigger effort in Asia. But it is absolutely necessary. Regulators should have more adequately qualified inspectors through up-to-date training, better salaries and conditions. The same goes for maintenance.

How can airlines minimize human error?
First, it is important to learn from the past, share information, share experiences, share accident information, obtain incident information from pilots, air-traffic controllers, engineers. For every accident there are more than 500 underlying incidents. So get the incident information and learn from it and rectify matters before there is another accident. Secondly, the regulators and airline management should encourage incident reporting by the crew and ensure confidentially in a blame-free environment. Don't kill the messenger.

Is it becoming harder or easier for pilots to fly with state-of-art, fly-by-wire-type aircraft at sophisticated airports with most modern equipment in control towers?
Maybe not harder, but certainly it is not easier. I'd say it is probably different. The fact that young kids today are highly computer-literate means nothing. Being computer-literate means they should learn to be more critical of computer logic because it can be garbage in, garbage out. Older "classic" pilots should get more hands-on experience, and absorb digital information, and not analog, seat-of-the-pants information. Both elements are extremely important, more so now as "artificial feel" is being introduced in training methods. As an experienced pilot, I can tell you there is often too much information for pilots in all those alarms, warnings, suggestions, etc.

Are pilots are under too much pressure by business-minded airlines to fly in hazardous conditions, for long hours to maximize profits for shareholders at the expense of safety?
Certainly, some of these factors are present in some of the long-haul, east-west-east flights of 12 to16 hours at night, crossing many time zones. Pressures on airlines struggling to make profits can sometimes result in more "economical" crew scheduling, thus putting more pressure on crews. But, largely, I believe most airline managements are aware of these problems and the International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations is following some of these things very closely and cooperating with medical experts. This is not something that pilots or airlines can take lightly. With an unchanging safety level and air traffic increasing 10% to15% annually, we will see accidents doubling in seven years. That means we must take safety management seriously, in order to keep the accident rate from rising.

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