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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Turbulence in aviation industry

Turbulence in aviation industry

With the analysis of the in-flight recorder, or "black box," from the fatal

flight PMT U4 241 stalled, lawmakers are calling for increased regulation, transparency

and accountability in domestic aviation. An international oversight body has also

announced it is about to undertake a comprehensive audit of the sector.

Safety concerns have resurfaced after a PMT Antonov 24 plane crashed in Kampot province

on June 25, killing all 22 aboard.

Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Son Chhay wrote a letter to Deputy Prime Minister Sok An

on July 3 requesting an explanation of the PMT crash and a full disclosure of contracts

the government has with airlines operating in Cambodia.

Chhay raised concerns about the age of the Soviet-made Antonov 24, and questioned

whether the government had adequately inspected the aircraft or heeded warnings about

the dangers of using older planes.

The letter also asked the government to reveal the fees it charges for operation

licenses for all airlines flying in the Kingdom and questioned if PMT Air had the

requisite insurance coverage.

Chhay's letter recalled concerns raised almost a decade ago about inadequate regulatory

controls in the aviation sector.

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

the State Secretariat of Civil Aviation (SSCA) was incapable of ensuring the airworthiness

and safety of domestic airline operations.

The confidential ICAO audit had been embargoed by the SSCA, but was provided to the

Post in 2001 by an international aviation expert concerned by what he called SSCA's

"unwillingness or inability" to address safety issues.

The report dammed the Kingdom's aviation regulator and detailed a chronically underfunded,

understaffed, and underskilled organization. The report made 30 recommendations to

the SSCA to fulfill its responsibility to flight safety, including the passing of

a comprehensive civil aviation law to address major deficiencies in airline supervision,

verification procedures and a lack of capacity in personnel.

It remains unclear if any improvements have been made since the report.

To date, the SSCA is still operating under the same regulatory framework that the

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

by the ICAO."

Him Sarun, chief of cabinet at the State Secretariat of Civil Aviation (SSCA), said

the civil aviation law was adopted by the Council of Ministers and sent to the National

Assembly in 2004 - but three years later it has still not been approved.

According to SSCA, there had been one further audit since 1999 and the authority

was now preparing for a third audit. Sarun referred all questions concerning the

improvements made by the SSCA to the ICAO.

Lahit Shah, director of ICAO's Asia Pacific Office in Bangkok, said a comprehensive

audit of the SSCA would be undertaken in November, but the results of the organization's

audits were confidential.

"Generally when these audits are carried out follow up reports are undertaken

but they are internal audits and are not made public," Shah told the Post on

July 12. "Though there is now a drive for more transparency and more sharing

of information."

Shah said he could not comment on specifics of the PMT Air crash.

"The accident investigation is the responsibility of the state investigating

body but it is conducted within the regulations set by the ICAO," he said. "We

will provide assistance with the investigation only if the state makes a request

for us to do so. The state takes the leadership."

Shah would not comment on specific problems within Cambodia's civil aviation sector

or whether the sector was currently in line with ICAO standards, but said there was

increasing pressure on the industry across the globe.

"There is a regional and global proliferation of air operations and this growth

has placed many challenges on the state to regulate the industry," he said.

"For the states to meet these requirements and to carry out proper regulation

has become a real challenge and it requires real political commitment to address

the problem."

Immediately following the crash, Prime Minister Hun Sen rose to defend PMT Air. Pre-empting

the results of any investigation, he said the aircraft was not at fault and attributed

the crash to poor weather conditions.

Hun Sen did address concerns about the age of the Soviet-era plane.

"I will study all companies to see whether they have old planes, and if they

are old, we will not let them fly," he said.

Hun Sen said an aircraft had crashed in the same area in the 1960s and asked civil

aviation authorities to study the approach route to Sihanoukville.

Sarun said Korean civil aviation authorities had been taken to inspect the crash

site but the SSCA had yet to conduct their own investigation and could not draw any

conclusions about the cause of the accident. "Only the black box can answer

that," he said.

Sarun said the black box had not been sent to the plane manufacturer in Russia as

the process had been delayed by red tape.

"We have completed all the necessary documents so we expect to send the black

box for examination this week," he said on July 12.

The South Korean Embassy confirmed that two officials from South Korea's Ministry

of Transportation had been investigating the crash and would fly to Moscow to analyze

the black box. Thirteen South Korean passengers died in the crash. Sar Sareth, the

director of PMT Air, said the airline's contract with the government met international

standards and the airline was fully insured.

"My company does not only fly domestically but also overseas and we must meet

international standards," he said.

"Without insurance airlines would not be allowed to operate in Cambodia and

we couldn't hire the planes."

PMT Air is maintaining its international services but has discontinued all domestic

flights since the crash, pending the results of the investigation.

"Since we started the Siem Reap to Sihanoukville service last January we have

not made a profit, but we continued the service to provide tourists with the option

to fly that way," he said. "But now we wait to see the results from the

black box."



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