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Everyone who flies on Phuket needs to know: why?

Phuket Air Crash: Law Suits Fly As Experts Dither

Saturday, July 12, 2008
LARGE LAWSUITS now complicate the circumstances surrounding the crash of One-Two-Go flight 269 from Bangkok to Phuket last September 16.

We knew they were coming. The only question was whether the lawsuits would beat the release of the full, official report on the tragedy.

Now we know: the law firm has won. The problem is that because the legal action has been announced first, the official findings, when they come, will now be subjected to increased speculation.

And there is likely to be extended debate about what happened, perhaps even two versions of events.

A spokesperson for Ribbeck Law Chartered, a Chicago-based law firm specialising in aviation disasters, told Phuketwan on July 12 that the firm has actually done its own investigation of the crash, employing its own aviation experts to define precisely what took place.

Ninety passengers and crew died in the crash or as a result of injuries, and 40 passengers escaped with their lives.

Some, like Phuket expat resident Robert Borland, who recently talked at length with Phuketwan, are still overcoming burns or other wounds.

Mr Borland, along with other survivors, wants to know what caused the crash. So do those of us who fly in and out of Phuket regularly.

So do the people who still use budget airlines. So do the managements of budget airlines, and those who run regular airlines all over the world.

So do the people who run Phuket International Airport. So do the manufacturers of all aircraft.

The fact that the report has taken so long in coming, and that there has been no disclosure about the reasons for the delay, is reprehensible.

And now, there may well soon be two versions of the truth, and a sanctioned, widely accepted picture of what happened could be years in the making.

Those of us who want to keep on flying, especially in and out of Phuket, deserve more immediate answers.

Now, we understand, families of some victims are preparing to file more than 70 lawsuits in the US courts, demanding compensation of $US400 million (about 13.2 billion baht).

We have not seen copies of the lawsuits but apparently they name Bangkok-based Orient Thai Airlines and its budget carrier One-Two-Go Airlines as twin defendants.

According to the Bangkok Post, the families have also asked Thai authorities to file criminal charges against Udom Tantiprasongchai, the chief executive and founder of the two carriers.

But where, for goodness' sake, is the official report on the crash? And why has it taken so long?

Wuthichai Singhamanee, the deputy director-general of Thailand's Department of Civil Aviation , told the newspaper that Thai authorities would conclude their formal investigation of the crash within the next month.

He said the DCA only last week received reports on the examination of parts of the doomed aircraft by the US National Transportation Safety Board.

But why the delay, when similar investigations are usually concluded within six months?

The tragedy, after all, took place at an airport, not at sea or in some overgrown jungle location, kilometres from civilisation.

One-Two-Go is facing lawsuits brought by the families of victims and some of the survivors.

We understand representatives of the firm are continuing to talk to others who are not yet part of the action.

And the case, it should be pointed out, now has wider implications for other airlines, too.

Ribbeck is helping families who are filing complaints with insurance regulators in London to suspend the licence of One-Two-Go's insurance carrier to underwrite future coverage for airlines.

The victims' families are filing a formal petition with the governments of 30 countries, including Thailand, to revoke the business licences of airlines that have insurance coverage from the same carrier that covered One-Two-Go.

Meanwhile, like passengers in an air terminal awaiting an announcement about a delayed flight, all we can do is sit and wait.

Here's the Phuketwan take on the disaster, first published several months back when we began to wonder why the full, official report hadn't followed the preliminary report:

THE CRASH of a One-Two-Go holiday flight on Phuket in September 2007 is receding into memory now. Forty fortunate survivors escaped with their lives. Ninety passengers and crew died.

The information stored on the black boxes that record data and conversations with the pilots seems to indicate that abnormal weather caused the crash, the authorities say.

Everybody who has been through a wild Phuket squall knows the power of swirling winds and rain on and around the island. Get caught in the wrong place on a boat in a Phuket squall and you'll come to know fear.

Ferries are capable of being overturned and especially vulnerable in such a squall. And so, it seems, are ageing aircraft.

In the September 16 airport tragedy, so-called wind shear has been blamed.

This seems to be the old, familiar Phuket squall in a particularly violent form, strong enough to push an aircraft down into the ground at the precise moment it was flying over the landing zone.

Plenty of people connected with the tourist industry would like the plane crash to be quietly forgotten now.

While uninformed speculation is not necessarily a good thing, there are still some remaining questions that deserve answers.

As many as three elements are usually involved to one degree or another in any aviation disaster: the weather, human error and mechanical failure.

Some crashes involve just one element. Others involve two or even all three, to varying degrees.

What we do not know in the case of One-Two-Go Flight 269 from Bangkok is whether human error and mechanical failure played any part.

The aircraft, a McDonnell Douglas MD-82, was 24 years old. While aircraft now have a long life expectancy, their physical ability to cope with maximum stress of this kind must inevitably diminish with time, even if they are perfectly maintained.

In many post-crash situations, the wreckage is carefully reassembled in a hangar while experts examine every centimetre of the aircraft, looking for flaws and faults.

This process does not appear to have been an option for Thai authorities because of one key practical consideration.

With flights cancelled and hundreds of passengers waiting to go home, there was the need to get aircraft flying in and out of Phuket again, and fast.

So would a younger aircraft or one of a different type have withstood and survived the buffering taken by Flight 269? We will probably never know.

The other unanswered question concerns the state of mind of the pilot. He was an experienced professional. Others have questioned whether he should have attempted the landing in those conditions.

We still do not know whether his attempt to land then apparent attempt to lift up and go around again was the right decision in those circumstances.

Was he hungry? As an Indonesian and a Muslim, could his lack of food that day have affected his judgement, even slightly?

It was, remember, the early days of Ramadan, when good Muslims fast from sunup to sundown. No-one is suggesting that, as an experienced pilot, he would not usually be able to fly a plane and practice his faith.

But in a crisis like this one, arising unexpectedly, every split-second counts. Dusk was not far off and hunger or thirst can certainly impair reaction time and distort judgement, as fasters of all faiths can attest.

Was he also aware of the crowded airspace on flights to and from Phuket? Lose your place in the queue and you might be in the air, circling, for some time.

Regrettably, these questions are never likely to be properly answered. We will all simply put them to the back of our minds and resume flying.

Update: The DCA has since told the Bangkok Post that it expects the report on the air crash to be released before August 2008.

Robert Borland Interview:

A Superman suit and a decompression chamber help a Phuket plane crash victim to fly again. But Robert Borland still wants the answer to one important question: why?

I Am Flying Again: Phuket Plane Crash Survivor


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