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Malaysian Airline System Berhad : Airline Safety in Asia Not Questioned in Jet Disappearance

03/08/2014 | 09:07am US/Eastern
By Gaurav Raghuvanshi 

As the search continued late Saturday for a missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner, experts pointed at how many Asian carriers have succeeded in the last decade to overhaul their patchy safety records, helping make flying in the region among the world's safest.

Authorities across Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam scrambled to locate the Boeing 777-200 jet with 239 people aboard that had lost contact with air-traffic controllers two hours into a routine flight to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur.

Though the fate of the aircraft remains unclear, aviation experts are pointing to the Malaysian flag carrier's strong safety record that stands out among some of its rivals in Southeast Asia.

The airline, which is 69.4% owned by Khazanah Nasional Bhd, the Malaysian sovereign-wealth fund, had suffered only one fatal aircraft accident since 1980, when one of its small turboprop planes crashed after an aborted landing attempt, killing 34 people, according to data from the Aviation Safety Network, an industry database.

Meanwhile, serious accidents were more frequent involving other airlines from many of the region's developing countries between the 1980s to early 2000s. This came as Asia's fledgling commercial aviation industry began to take off, significantly hurting the reputation of operators in nations such as China, South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia.

Among the deadliest air crashes in Asia, an Airbus A300 plane of Garuda Indonesia crashed in September 1997, killing 234 people. Two months later, a 10-month old Boeing 737-300 operated by SilkAir, the regional unit of Singapore Airlines, crashed near Palembang, also in Indonesia, killing all 104 onboard.

But safety has improved considerably in Asia over the last decade, experts say, with airlines and national governments investing billions of dollars to boost crew training and flight infrastructure. China has completely turned itself around since the 1990s to be among the safest aviation regions in the world, they say.

"The safety performance of Asian airlines is in line with the overall industry performance," said Andrew Herdman, the director general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines, a Kuala Lumpur-based industry organization.

Over last decade, the industry hull loss rate, or planes getting completely damaged, has improved to one loss in three million flights from one in a million, Mr. Herdman said.

Still, safety remains a concern among some smaller Asian markets, particularly in some developing Southeast Asian nations that involve smaller commuter aircraft. In February, a Nepal Airlines Canadian-made Twin Otter turboprop crashed, killing all 18 onboard, in Nepal's seventh fatal commercial aircraft crash since 2008, killing a total of 125 people.

Elsewhere in Asia, India's airline safety ranking was downgraded by the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority earlier this year following a review of the South Asian nation's regulatory oversight. As well, many Indonesia airlines continue to be on the European Union watch list for safety. In a sign of the improved safety standards, however, flag carrier Garuda Indonesia was among the few of the nation's airlines removed from the list in 2009.

"Every day approximately six million people board airplanes and arrive safely at their destinations.... The overall safety record of commercial airplanes is excellent and has been steadily improving over time," according to Boeing Co., the Chicago-based manufacturer of the missing 777-200. The aircraft was delivered to Malaysia Airlines in May 2002.

Since its introduction in 1995, the Boeing 777 has quickly become the workhorse of Asia's full-service carriers, shuttling thousands of passengers a day on regional and long-haul flights to Europe and North America. Asian airlines credit the twin-engine jet as a more fuel-efficient and reliable aircraft to operate than the bigger aircraft it is replacing, the Boeing 747.

Boeing data show fatal accidents now occur less than once every two million flights, a huge improvement over once in 200,000 flights in the 1950s and 1960s.

As for the missing Malaysian jet, Vietnam's navy said it possibly crashed 153 nautical miles off the Vietnam coast. The Vietnam navy couldn't confirm the possible crash site, while Malaysia Airlines and the nation's government said the plane hadn't yet been found.

"There are only two possibilities in my mind--some undefined mechanical problem or terrorism--that would explain how the pilot would be caught unaware and can't react, that controllers heard nothing," said Harshvardhan, an aviation analyst in New Delhi.

If there was some trouble, the plane would have sent a warning or tried to make an emergency landing, said Mr. Harshvardhan, who goes by only one name.

The aircraft was carrying enough fuel to keep it in the air for two extra hours and analysts said every passing minute pointed to a mishap.

"Every hour that goes by without a sign of life from the aircraft will further point to a catastrophic event," said Jonathan Galaviz, a partner with Global Market Advisors, an aviation and leisure consulting firm. "The route that flight takes has difficult terrain and the weather conditions could be harsh."

In the next two decades, the Asia Pacific region will account for almost half of the growth in air traffic, according Boeing's estimates. To accommodate this growth, the region will need 12,820 new aircraft, worth around $1.9 trillion, Boeing said last month.

Mark Magnier in Beijing contributed to this article.

Write to Gaurav Raghuvanshi at gaurav.raghuvanshi@wsj.com

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