Saturday, October 15, 2011

28 Killed in Airlines PNG Flight to Madang in Bad Weather

Four people, including an Australian and a New Zealander, survived a fatal Airlines PNG plane crash in dense forest in Papua New Guinea (PNG) in which 28 are feared to have been killed. The flight from the mountain city of Lae to Madang, went down on Thursday (October 13) as a powerful storm approached. PNG's Accident Investigation Commission reported that weather had been very poor when the Bombardier Dash 8 came down in a forested area near the mouth of the Gogol River, about 20 kilometers (13 miles) from its destination.

COMMENT: Carrying 28 passengers and a crew of four, the survivors reportedly included two pilots, one crew member and a passenger, believed to be a Chinese national. Tragically, more than 20 aircraft have crashed since 2000 in PNG, where rugged terrain and lack of adequate roads render air travel the most efficient way of getting people around the country of six million citizens.

A 20-place Twin Otter went down in August 2009, killing 13 people including nine Australians and a Japanese tourist on the short distance from Port Moresby, the capital, to the popular Kokoda trekking site. That accident, in which the aircraft crashed into a mountainside, also involved an Airlines PNG airliner, where pilot error determined to be the cause because of poor visibility.

The high rate of air disasters has forced national government to introduce legislation requiring that all aircraft carrying more than nine people have a cockpit recorder installed. Unfortunately, the country has only had an air accident commission for three years, established in response to claims that corruption and a lack of adequate funding has contributed to the high rate of crashes. As a result of the Lae-Madang crash, Airlines PNG said it had grounded its Dash 8 fleet of twelve aircraft until further notice. Unfortunately, none of these actions helped the 28 souls who perished in the crash.

It is embarrassing for a commercial airline in any country to delay scheduled flights, yet in the face of such an unprecedented track-record of air crashes, one would hope that prudence would dictate not to fly in high-risk weather, particularly given the lack of effective ground navigation aids and real-time weather reporting infrastructure.

Even in cases where pilots decide to fly on schedule, that does not mean that passengers have to board the flight. As I have said in the past, just because a flight departs does not mean that there are not serious risks of flight safety. Although everyone wants to get someplace for a reason, not getting there at all is a very good reason to take the next flight, inconvenient as it may be. Clearly, traveling anywhere in impoverished PNG is not without major risks.

Updates on the causation of the Lae-Madang flight will be provided as information becomes available.

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