Fri, Aug 24, 2007 - Page 2 News List

Analysis: CAL corporate culture a problem: analysts


Three of the passengers on the China Airlines flight that exploded at Naha Airport, Okinawa, earlier this week return to Taipei yesterday.


Just when China Airlines (CAL) seemed to be leaving behind a troubled past, it has encountered potentially damaging turbulence.

The series of explosions that destroyed one of the company's Boeing 737s on Monday were grimly reminiscent of the period from 1991 to 2002, when a string of disasters claimed the lives of 693 passengers and crew.

Though no one died in this week's accident at Okinawa's Naha Airport it raised questions about how far the carrier has progressed.

The persistent doubts seem incongruous for a company headquartered in Taiwan, which over the past four decades has transformed itself from an agricultural backwater to a vital link in the global high-tech chain, with a reputation for precision and digital innovation.

Critics lay the blame on a deadly mixture of intrusive government involvement and a corporate culture that places greater emphasis on hierarchy than teamwork and disdains basic accountability.

From in-flight menus with comical English misspellings to senior executives passing the buck, they say, the carrier needs a thorough overhaul to get its act in order.

"There's a selfishness there," said local aviation expert Earl Wieman. "You live in your own sphere, you don't care about others, you are indifferent to things around you."

However, some international aviation analysts question whether China Airlines is really that bad. They acknowledge its poor safety record in the 1990s, but say that recently it has made impressive improvements in the performance of both pilots and maintenance staff.

"They've really done very well over the last two years," said Singapore-based Nicholas Ionides of Flight International magazine. "They've focused a lot on trying to eliminate human error."

Jan-Arwed Richter, a Hamburg, Germany-based aviation specialist who compiles a detailed aviation safety index said: "I definitely cannot support the argument that CAL relapsed back into [the] bad times of the past."

China Airlines would not comment directly on safety issues. In an e-mail company spokesman Johnson Sun (孫鴻文) said the carrier was attending to the needs of passengers involved in the Naha incident and that the crew had performed bravely in supervising the emergency evacuation on the tarmac.

Retired Air Force officers founded the airline in 1959. It is controlled by a quasi-governmental organization, the China Aviation Development Foundation, which owns a 62 percent stake.

Pressured by the government to privatize and become more accountable, the foundation tried to sell 35 percent of its stake in 2000, but there were no takers.

Analysts have said the carrier's struggle to become safer was a major reason it couldn't find a partner.

Still, it has good access to funding and boasts a fleet of Boeing and Airbus aircraft with an average age of 5.3 years -- far below the industry average.

In recent years, CAL has made a big push to improve its record, hiring a longtime Swissair pilot to leaven the militaristic culture that once dominated the carrier's cockpits. It also brought in a veteran engineering specialist from Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific to help on maintenance.

The moves appeared to have paid off. China Airlines' last fatal accident was in 2002, when a 747 broke up in midair between Taipei and Hong Kong. Since then, said Kay Yong (戎凱), former Aviation Safety Council chairman, the carrier has made "good, honest efforts at every level."

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