Lax security and flagrant disregard of safety mea-sures-coupled with a recent increase
in air traffic that is taxing rudimentary navigational equipment and inadequately-trained
staff-makes Pochentong International Airport one of the most dangerous in the region,
according to sources involved in Cambodia's aviation.
The main fault for the deterioration in safety seems to lie with UNTAC, which has
not compensated for the additional traffic pressure it has put on the Pochentong
facility and for flaunting basic safety precautions.
The situation has been compounded by a doubling of commercial traffic, an increase
from an average of five flights daily to ten flights a day.
"The place is a flight safety officer's nightmare-it is an accident waiting
to happen, and it is only by the grace of God that we have not had a major accident
yet," says a senior UNTAC official in aviation.
Commercial aircraft landing in Phnom Penh have had to abruptly pull out of their
descent on at least three occasions during November alone because of UNTAC vehicles,
motorbikes and pedestrians on the runway, say sources.
Two of the incidents involved Vietnam Airlines planes; the most recent occurred Nov.
23 as a regularly-scheduled Bangkok Airways plane was about to touch down.
A Kampuchea Airlines helicopter had landed a few minutes before and moved to the
western taxiway, which connects the runway with the aircraft parking space adjacent
to the airport terminal building.
The helicopter stopped on the taxiway for some reason. Meanwhile, a private vehicle
temporarily hired by UNTAC, ignored a red light and tried to cross the runway from
the military side of the airport to the civilian side.
Only when the vehicle was smack in the middle of the runway did the driver realize
that the helicopter blocked its way. There the vehicle sat oblivious to the Bangkok
Airways Boeing 737 only several hundred feet above the ground and descending rapidly.
The airplane's pilot was instructed by the control tower to pull up.
"The security at the airport is lousy; there are UNTAC vehicles running all
over the place, and they never seem to think that their vehicles might stall while
they are crossing the runway," said a senior UNTAC officer who happened to be
on the Bangkok Airways' Nov. 23 flight.
After pulling up again, which is not an especially dangerous maneuver (but it will
consume roughly U.S. $500 of additional fuel), the Bangkok Airways pilot told his
Nov. 23 passengers that he probably could have landed safely. Controllers confirm
this assumption but say the pilot would have had to brake hard to land safely.
"It was not a collision hazard, but it should not happen at all," said
a controller on duty at the time. "Once is too much for an airport of this size."
As with previous incidents, a report was filed with the State of Cambodia's Department
of Civil Aviation (DCA), but there appears to have been little follow-up if any.
"We are not turning a blind eye to this problem and we have had several discussions
with UNTAC military [officials]," says former State of Cambodia Air Force Colonel
Soeung Samnang, who currently serves as DCA's chief of flight operations.
But, he adds, "We need closer cooperation and understanding, otherwise the traffic
on the ground could pose a threat to air safety."
In other recent incidents, the control tower directed pilots to pull up when a pair
of motorbikes were spotted cruising the runway and another time when an UNTAC employee
was walking over to the military side of the airport after having been dropped off
on the civilian side.
Cambodia recently became a member of the International Civil Aviation Organization
(ICAO) which requires runways to be empty for any landings. In most international
airports no non-aircraft traffic is allowed on the runways.
On this account, some negligence can be attributed to the DCA which has 20 airport
police, but they appear to spend most of their time keeping cool in the VIP lounge,
according to workers at the airport.
In effect though, UNTAC has considerable sway at the airport. With the facility's
only radar, the military has effective operational control. And those working in
the aviation sector say that some confusion arises from a split of objectives between
the civilian and military side of UNTAC.
The civilians have been pushing for control of the airport to revert back to DCA,
apparently out of concern over liability issues. The military, on the other hand,
insist that they need operational control and that they are willing to handle the
civilian needs as part of their overall control.
The matter seems to revolve around whether UNTAC Force Commander, Lt. General John
Sanderson has withdrawn from an agreement he signed with the DCA to assume control
of commercial and military air traffic at the airport.
ICAO officials who are up-grading the training of Khmer traffic controllers are in
favor of the current arrangement because without the military assistance the control
tower would have to resort to the more rudimentary "procedural control."
"The agreement buys us time," says an ICAO official.
He estimates the Khmer controllers will be up to international standards in four
or five months. Left to themselves without that training, the airport will probably
have to curtail its hours of operation so that international supervision can be maintained
Pol-Pot Era Airport
While UNTAC has nearly transferred all of its operations over to the military side
of Pochentong Airport, relieving what had been dangerous congestion on the apron,
they are still bringing in additional helicopters, so the military has already run
out of parking space on its side of the airport.
With large troop rotations to begin soon UNTAC is "looking strongly into the
possibility" of moving a sizeable part of their operations to an airport at
Kompong Chhnang, which the Chinese built in the 1970s when they were the main allies
of the Khmer Rouge. Intended for military purposes, the airport was never used, although
the runway is in considerably better shape than the Pochentong air strip. Both air
strips feature 9,600-foot runways that can accommodate jumbo-size jets. The main
problem with moving to Kompong Chhnang is the 86-km. road to Phnom Penh.
One worry at Pochentong is that just to bring Kompong Chhnang up to 'tactical quality'
will probably mean UNTAC will take their radar system with them.
Ordinarily a radar system could be replaced easily enough but UNTAC's record of providing
navigational gear is not reassuring.
Initial UNTAC promises of providing a wide range of equipment-as well as additional
air traffic controllers to open a country-wide Area Control Center-have not come
"To this day they have not supplied one piece of gear, they have not supplied
one controller," says a source involved in rebuilding Cambodia's aviation sector.
"We talk to them, we listen to them, they are nice people and all that but we
don't rely on them or plan on anything they say they are going to do."
Budgetary realities may have tempered initial plans, as well as the sensitivities
to the charge of unduly helping out the State of Cambodia. But bureaucratic snafus
are another factor. At one time, three different entities were supposed to be in
charge of acquiring critical navigational aides: ICAO, a Texas firm and UNTAC itself,
which has no real expertise in this area.
"Sometime I think it [the inaction] is because no one can make a decision,"
says this source in frustration. "UNTAC is probably the most disorganized organization
I have ever seen. Not only do they not know what they are doing, they don't seem
to know what they should be doing."
As a result the operation is riddled with inefficiency and confusion. One example
is the lack of a direct communications link between the control tower, which comes
under the jurisdiction of the DCA and is responsible for commercial traffic, and
the military side of the airport.
A French detachment, which handles the air-port's only radar facilities, at one time
had provided a UNTAC radio handset for the civilians in the control tower but took
it back when one of theirs broke down.
A domestic telephone line run into the control tower to replace the radio handset
was never fully operational.
The result is that the control tower can only communicate with their military counterparts
by going through the French radar operators, where some delay is inevitable.
The alternative is using a satellite telephone link, recently installed at the control
tower by Aerothai, the Thai aeronautical organization. A small hitch: it is a Bangkok
Meanwhile these days there are four or five aircraft in the air at the same time
coming in for a landing at Pochentong just minutes apart, say air traffic controllers.
The airport's air traffic control equipment does not meet international standards,
though the United Nations Development Program is gradually providing new equipment
as well as training for the controllers.
The U.S. $2.3 million project also provides on site three ICAO supervisors, although
one is being sent home after his performance did not match his credentials on paper
. He will have a replacement.
As for overall safety at the airport: "It is getting better but it is still
far below ICAO standards," says an ICAO official.
Controller Brain Drain
On the horizon is another potential problem: a possible brain drain from the trained
Khmer air traffic controllers, who win high praise for their eagerness to learn,
but are still being paid only U.S. $25 per month (supervisors receive U.S. $35).
Even locally hired UNTAC secretaries sometimes earn six or seven times that amount.
After scrapping the idea of bringing in experienced controllers from Thailand or
Malaysia to work for U.S. $1,500 monthly as dispiriting for the local staff both
UNDP and UNTAC agreed to supplement the Khmer salaries. Both intentions have apparently
died bureaucratic deaths.
Ambitious plans to refurbish Cambodia's other airports have also become clogged in
UNTAC's in/out paper trays.
UNTAC officials now say they will take it upon themselves to repair a 300 meter stretch
of the runway at Battambang while they are still in the process of awarding a U.S.
$4.5 million contract to rebuild the runway at Stung Treng.