The loss of China Airlines flight CI611 is a tragedy and our sympathies go out to those who have lost loved ones in this disaster. Two tasks must proceed with all haste: recovering the bodies of those on the ill-fated flight and the beginning of an investigation into just what went wrong Saturday afternoon.
Right now nobody knows what actually did happen. There are a raft of theories, concerning everything from a stray Chinese missile (shades of the Russian plane shot down over the Black Sea last October) to an explosion in a wing fuel tank similar to the cause of the TWA Flight 800 crash off Long Island in 1996, to metal fatigue in an aging plane.
Although there was a tendency almost nationwide on Saturday, given CAL's miserable safety record, to say "not again?" and to wonder how this airline could be allowed to stay in business with its grim ability to wreak havoc on the lives of its travellers with such shocking frequency, since we know so little about what caused the crash this would be rushing to a judgement that might prove extremely unfair.
Nevertheless, China Airlines is going to present the government with a big problem, and it should be prepared.
The problem is two-fold. First, whatever the cause and wherever the blame lies for CI611's demise, this does nothing for an accident record that made CAL even before Saturday, the world's second worst international carrier, according to the statistic carried by the Planecrashinfo.com Web site. The catastrophic loss of three widebodied jets in less than a decade (Nagoya 1994, Taoyuan 1998 and now Penghu), the writing off of another with some loss of life (Hong Kong 1999) and landing a plane in Hong Kong harbor in 1993 would almost be comic if it didn't involve the loss of over 800 lives. For some time to come there is going to be a perception that flying CAL is little different from playing Russian roulette. As this sends passenger revenues into a tailspin, a Mayday call to the government for financial help is not unlikely. Is the government prepared to see the erstwhile flag carrier go belly up? Probably not.
But this brings us to the second part of the problem -- what to do if CAL really is responsible for the crash in some way, for example by poor maintenance? Under such circumstances there would be an outcry demanding the airline's closure and it would be hard to argue that the company should be allowed to keep flying, putting people's lives in danger. But then what should be done? Sell the company off? To whom? EVA probably couldn't afford it and giving it a near monopoly of Taiwan's air transportation can hardly be in passengers' best interests. Invite bids from foreign operators? But they are cash-strapped too after the downturn that followed the Sept. 11 attacks on the US. And there would be no guarantee that they could take over CAL's existing route network without renegotiation of landing rights -- a formidable obstacle. And what to do in the mean-time? It is hard to imagine simply mothballing an organization as big as CAL until a buyer is found. And Taiwan needs more air transport capacity, not drastically less.
These are huge problems, involving both business judgement and social responsibility. In the worst of all possible outcomes the government could even find itself bailing out a company which it then has to order to cease operations. The fact is that while the tragedy has already happened, the problems may be just about to begin.
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