Insight: Myanmar's aviation industry booms despite grim safety record

Mon Oct 21, 2013 8:26pm EDT
 
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By Aubrey Belford and Min Zayar Oo

KONEMOE, Myanmar (Reuters) - Htay Aung was riding pillion on a motorbike last Christmas morning, wending through the cool hills of eastern Myanmar, when Air Bagan Flight 11 came down on top of him.

The Fokker 100 - more than 24 tonnes of aircraft, plus 65 passengers and six crew - sheared its way through trees and powerlines, across the road and into a field short of nearby Heho airport. Htay Aung found himself sucked into a scorching maelstrom of debris.

"I felt my body go up into the air and then drop. Fire was all around me," recalled Htay Aung, who is now 19 and lives with the effects of burns across his head and body. His uncle, who was driving that day, was killed.

The crash, which also gutted the jet, killed one passenger and injured eight, most of them foreign tourists, capped off a horror year for air safety in Myanmar. Out of the country's tiny fleet of domestic commercial aircraft, four were involved in serious accidents in 2012, one of them causing death.

But the appalling safety rate has hardly dented a broader trend in Myanmar's aviation industry: spectacular growth. After decades under the thumb of xenophobic generals, one of Asia's last frontiers of commercial aviation is opening up.

Passenger numbers are surging as new airlines spring up and foreign carriers rush in. Some officials and executives talk grandly of turning Myanmar into a regional hub.

The country, however, appears ill-prepared for the pace of change, putting both safety - and the prospects of many hopeful airlines - at risk.

"They've opened up, in my personal opinion, far before they're ready for it," said Shukor Yusof, an analyst who specialises in the aviation sector for credit-ratings agency Standard & Poor's in Singapore.   Continued...

 
People form a line to board a plane in Yangon airport October 2, 2013. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun