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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Domestic plane safety in doubt after plane crash

Domestic plane safety in doubt after plane crash

The fatal crash of PMT flight U4 241 has reopened the debate concerning the conditions

of Cambodia's domestic aviation industry.

A 1999 report by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) stated that

Cambodia's aviation safety oversight body was incapable of ensuring the airworthiness

and safety of domestic airline operations.

The confidential ICAO audit report, which was embargoed by the State Secretariat

of Civil Aviation (SSCA), was provided to the Post in 2001 by an international aviation

safety expert deeply concerned by what he called SSCA's "unwillingness or inability"

to address safety issues.

The report was an excoriating indictment of the SSCA. It detailed a chronically under-funded,

understaffed, and under-skilled organization and made 30 recommendations to the SSCA

to fulfill its responsibility to flight safety in the Kingdom.

Four years after the report, PMT air, or Progress Multitrade Co. Ltd, was registered

by the Registry of Ministry of Commerce, Kingdom of Cambodia, on January 14, 2003.

On September 2003, the Cambodian Council of Ministers granted the company the right

to be a local air carrier following large "efforts of compliances" with

the Cambodian Civil Airworthiness Requirement (CAR).

On October 14, 2003, the SSCA issued PMT an Air Operator Certificate (AOC), officially

licensing them to carry passengers and cargo throughout the Kingdom and the region.

Additionally, the SSCA approved PMT as an Aircraft Maintenance Organization (AMO).

According to information on the PMT web site, maintenance of PMT's fleet is under

the control of the SSCA, which uses "mostly local employees who hold personnel

licenses issued by SSCA."

On June 27, Prime Minister Hun Sen told reporters that the crash would prompt a thorough

review of Cambodia's domestic aviation industry.

"We will review this incident but we are not planning to punish anyone at this

stage as this was a human tragedy which nobody wanted," he said. "We believe

the incident occurred not because of problems with the plane, but because of bad

weather."

The Prime Minister added that he has asked the SSCA to investigate whether the route

the flight was taking was safe.

"There are unconfirmed reports of a T28 plane going down in this same region

in the 1960s," he said. "We will study this area and we may have to issue

a warning about flying through it."

The ICAO safety review was conducted in April 1999 as part of a special two-year

Universal Safety Oversight Audit of world airlines. Although the report specifies

that SSCA must provide an action plan within 21 days of the report's issuance, the

aviation expert said at the time that the SSCA had done little or nothing to remedy

the situation.

"If anything, conditions and standards [at SSCA] has gotten worse since the

report was issued," he told the Post in 2001. "The situation is literally

one in which we're just waiting for an accident to happen."

Sith Sakal, head of the security unit at SSCA, said on June 28, that he was unable

to answer questions about the implementation of changes required by the ICAO report

over the last eight years.

Him Sarun, chief of cabinet at SSCA, referred all questions to SSCA's newly appointed

spokesperson, Sivon.

"There have been many changes since that report," said Sivon, who declined

to give his first name, on June 28. "There has been one more audit since that

one, when the ICAO said we had improved our performance, and we are in the process

of preparing for a third audit."

Sivon said that only the ICAO could answer questions about what changes and improvements

had been made by SSCA.

But at press time, the director of the Bangkok ICAO office, Lahit Shah, had not responded

to repeated emailed questions on the results of the most recent audit of the SSCA.

It is unknown if the recent crash, which left 22 foreign and Cambodian nationals

dead, will prompt a comprehensive audit of SSCA this year.

The 1999 ICAO report identified four main areas of SSCA operations that it alleged

"seriously impaired" its ability to effectively maintain international

safety standards.

These included regulatory loopholes - including the lack of a comprehensive civil

aviation law - personnel deficiencies, and major problems with verification procedures

- for example, checking the qualifications of foreign pilots - and airline supervision.

According to the SSCA's Sarun, the law on civil aviation has been adopted by the

Council of Ministers, and was sent to the National Assembly in 2004. It has yet to

be approved. Currently, SSCA is still operating under the same regulatory framework

which the 1999 report said "did not meet the criteria for safety regulations

as stipulated by the ICAO."

Although mechanical failure was ruled out as a cause of the crash, the Prime Minister

said he would ask the SSCA to initiate new safety checks on planes operating domestic

flights within Cambodia.

"We will check all planes operational in Cambodia and if they are too old then

we will not allow them to fly in our country," Hun Sen said. "We have to

be careful as older planes may be more dangerous than new planes. If we do not fulfill

our responsibility to thoroughly investigate this issue, then neither Cambodians

nor foreigners will trust us in future."

But no mention was made of examining SSCA's own potential role in the tragedy.

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