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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Controversy over new airline startups

Controversy over new airline startups

The State Secretariat for Civil Aviation (SSCA) has confirmed that two new airlines,

Mekong Airlines and Cambodia Air, were granted operating licenses this week. The

authority also said discussions with China's Hainan Airlines on a new national carrier

were going well.

However, a senior official at SSCA, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the

Post the licenses had been approved without consulting the authority. He expressed

serious safety and financial concerns resulting from what he called "political

interference from the top".

"We worry about [safety]. We are the civil aviation authority, but there is

a lot of interference from the top," he said. "Sometimes we say this aircraft

cannot fly, but then those at the top say we have to allow them."

Cambodia's lack of adequate air safety was exposed February 2001 when the Post released

details of a confidential report by the International Civil Aviation Authority that

sharply criticised the way operations were run.

An aviation expert said at the time he was "waiting for an accident to happen".

The report said safety regulations and staffing levels were inadequate in view of

the level of aviation activities at the time.

"Political pressure often overrides technical concerns," the official said

March 13. "We issue licenses for engineers or pilots. But sometimes with pressure

from above we have to give them a license without sufficient proof [that they are


The SSCA official said he was aware of the two new airlines, but felt the market

could not sustain them. Current bilateral agreements meant that the numbers of flights

to cities like Bangkok were limited.

"We cannot allow them all to fly," he said, "and then they will die".

He counted Royal Khmer Airlines, which never took off, Kampuchea Airlines, and Royal

Air Cambodge as previous casualties.

However, Long Chheng, deputy chief of cabinet at the SSCA, painted a more optimistic

picture. Claiming that negotiations with China's Hainan Air on forming a new national

airline were "now past the 50 percent stage" he said Cambodia already had

13 operational bilateral agreements and said ten more countries would accept charter


Australian-owned Mekong Airlines released a statement to the Post March 13.

"We have been informed by the SSCA that our air operators' license has been

signed by the PM and is ready to be issued," the statement read. "We have

been invited to come to the SSCA to apply for our routes. We hope if all goes well

we should be able to start before Cambodian New Year".

The airline went on to dismiss claims that it was in financial difficulty.

"These are just bad rumours that are expected to be started by the competition."

Reports on February 28 claimed that the renamed successor to RAC, Cambodian National

Airlines, in which China's Hainan airlines will have a significant stake, will have

at least $10 million in working capital and lease two Boeing jets from Hainan's China


The official at the SSCA said it was unclear what would happen to RAC's estimated

$30 million debt pile. He added that the defunct national carrier owes $11 million

to the SSCA.

Cambodia Air, which is backed by businessman Kith Meng, is set to start flights next




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