As divers pull more bodies from a Taiwanese river where a TransAsia Airways propjet crashed shortly after takeoff, DW takes a look at the airline's safety record and what is known about the cause of the crash.
The horrifying footage of TransAsia Flight GE235's crash on February 4 went viral around the world. Captured by at least two cars carrying dashboard cameras, the videos show how the plane banked steeply away from buildings in Taiwan's capital, Taipei, hit an elevated road and crashed into the Keelung River - leaving behind a trail of debris and a smashed taxi.
The TransAsia ATR 72-600 went down shortly after taking off from Taipei's downtown Songshan airport with 58 people on board, killing at least 35 of them. The one-year-old aircraft was bound for the Taiwanese island of Kinmen. Among those on board were 31 tourists from China, mainly from the southwestern city of Xiamen.
Engine shut down manually
As people in both Taiwan and China mourn the victims of the tragedy, investigators are frantically trying to find out what went wrong.
According to Taiwan's Aviation Safety Council, both engines of the turboprop plane failed before it plummeted into the shallow river.
"Based on the data we have so far, we can see that for a period of time both engines showed no thrust," said Thomas Wang, director of the agency, based on information from the flight data and voice recorders. "The right engine flamed out and triggered a warning in the cockpit. The left engine was shut down manually and the pilot tried to restart the engine but couldn't," Wang said, adding that it was "not clear" why the left engine was shut down manually. "We are not reaching any judgment yet," he said.
An engine "flameout" can occur when fuel supply to an engine is interrupted or when there is faulty combustion. A more detailed report on the crash will be available in next 30 days, with a final report expected in the next three to six months.
Similarities with British Midland Flight 92
According to Gerry Soejatman, an independent Jakarta-based aviation analyst, confusion among crew members seems to have led to the wrong engine being shut down. "The Flight Data Recorder shows that it was only in the last moments that the crew corrected their mistakes in an effort to restart the engines."
This would be similar to what happened to British Midland Flight 92 in 1989. Back then, a Boeing 737-400 crashed onto the embankment of the M1 motorway near Kegworth, UK, when the pilots shut down the wrong engine after the second one had malfunctioned.
Soejatman therefore believes the investigation into TransAsia Flight GE235 will likely look into the cause of the initial flameout, and how the crew ended up shutting down the wrong engine. Daniel Tsang, a Hong Kong-based analyst at Aspire Aviation, explains that typically planes are designed to be able to climb and take-off even under single engine failure.
Developed in 2007, the ATR72 600 is a new, more powerful version of the old ATR, and has PW127M engines, which enable a five percent increase in takeoff power. The propjet is a joint venture aircraft between Italy and France and is used extensively around the world with a high safety record. Given that a single engine failure is normally not enough to bring down a plane, Tsang believes other factors seem to have been at play with Flight GE235.
'Exceptional skill and bravery'
Whatever caused the plane to crash, the video footage also shows that the crew fought to save the airplane right up to the last moment. The pilot and co-pilot, whose bodies were retrieved from the cockpit, have been praised for what seems to be a last-ditch attempt to steer the plane away from populated areas.
"From what I can deduce, the pilots showed both exceptional skill and bravery in trying to keep the aircraft from hitting buildings or any built up area," Hugh Ritchie, chief executive of Aviation Consultants International, based in Australia, told DW.
The expert said that despite the engine flameout, a subsequent loss of lift and a significant loss of directional control, the crew managed to ensure that the aircraft missed buildings and it appears that they were trying to do a belly landing on the Keelung River.
Ritchie also pointed out the flameout may have been caused by a bird striking the engine: "Songshan Airport is renowned for bird strikes, with a large number of birds nesting on or around the runway in ground nests."
Founded in 1951, TransAsia Airways is Taiwan's third largest airline. The private company mainly flies on domestic routes within Taiwan, but has also added some two dozen routes to mainland China. It also offers flights to other North Asian destinations in Japan and Korea.
But analysts say the airline's safety record is reason for concern as it has written off five planes since 1995 and had seven serious incidents over the past 20 years, four of which resulted in fatalities, according to data from Flightglobal Ascend, an industry consultancy.
The February 4 accident comes just seven months after another fatal crash which claimed the lives of 48 of the 58 people on board. The incident occurred in July 2014 when the pilots of an ATR 72-500 tried to land the aircraft at Penghu Island, off mainland China. "The accident can be attributed to pilot error of flying in extremely bad weather and trying to land when conditions were well beyond aircraft limit," said Ritchie.
Multiple plane crashes in Asia in the past one year have increased air safety concerns in the region
It has also emerged that as of the end of December 2014, TransAsia had failed to meet around a third of the requirements the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) demanded as a result of the July crash. Moreover, Macau's Civil Aviation Authority said the engines of Flight GE235 had been replaced at Macau Airport in April last year "due to engine-related technical issues."
The CAA has grounded a total of 22 Taiwanese ATR planes for safety checks to inspect maintenance issues following the accident, and TransAsia has been banned from applying for new routes for one year.
'No trust, no ticket sales'
In view of this development, Hamburg-based independent aviation expert Heinrich Grossbongardt believes the latest incident could have a severe economic impact on the airline. "Without the trust of the people, no airline is able to sell tickets," he said. The analyst pointed out that Malaysia Airlines, for instance, is fighting for survival after two tragedies last year, despite the fact that the carrier and its management in both cases most likely only bear a minor part of the blame – if any.
In the case of TransAsia, however, there are signs that pilot error has been a contributing factor in some accidents, which raises doubt about the safety culture and the operating procedures of the entire airline, Grossbongardt told DW.
Neil Hansford, chairman of Strategic Aviation Solutions, agrees: "There is a thing in the industry that you are only as good as your next crash." The Australian expert argues that in most countries this number of crashes would be terminal and the regulator would immediately stop any fleet additions and new routes and make the carrier downsize to a level where they can operate competently and safely with an ability to be profitable.
Nonetheless, analyst Tsang believes the economic impact will likely be limited. "Short-term bookings are expected to come under pressure, but given its prized routes out of a downtown airport in Taipei, TransAsia's bookings should rebound." This would be similar to what happened after the July 2014 crash which resulted in a sharp slump in revenue for about a month, but then passenger traffic rebounded again a month later.
According to Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific Chief Economist at the analytics firm IHS, TransAsia was helped by the popularity of its flight connections out of Songshan Airport, which is much closer and more accessible than Taipei's main Taoyuan international airport, which is 40 kilometers from downtown.
Moreover, the number of passengers using direct commercial flights between mainland China and Taiwan has risen sharply from five million in 2010 - the first full year of direct scheduled flights - to an estimated nine million in 2013. Negotiations are currently underway between China and Taiwan to allow mainland Chinese travelers to make transit stops in Taiwan on their way to other destinations.
Asia needs pilots
But many industry experts are concerned that the shortage of experienced pilots might jeopardize the safety of air travel in Asia. A number of accidents and incidents involving latest generation aircraft inside and outside the region (e.g. the Asiana crash in San Francisco) might be signs on the wall.
According to the latest Boeing study, the region needs 255,000 new pilots by 2033, which means some 20,000 every year. When an airline takes delivery of an additional jet it needs 14 pilots on average to operate the aircraft. But as Grossbongardt explains, the crew's level of experience is at least as important, especially in a region where severe weather is a frequent occurrence and navigation aids at smaller airports don't always have the highest standard.
"The problem with experience is: it only builds with flight hours," said the analyst. Carriers which can afford it have started hiring pilots from Europe and the US. But this will not be a solution in the long run, because a pilot shortage is looming in these regions as well.
A downward trend in safety?
Aviation analyst Ritchie says the aviation industry is witnessing a downward trend in safety oversight. "This, I believe is a global phenomenon brought about to some extent by the introduction of self-auditing of the quality safety management of airlines, airports and maintenance organizations which are overseen by regulators who are neither skilled nor capable due to the increased aircraft operations to clearly maintain oversight of airport and airlines," he said.
The analyst argues that with the increased number of low cost carriers and the subsequent rise in flight operations over the past few years, there has also been a reduction of safety oversight and management awareness. "Too often economic and operational management imperatives impact safety decisions," Ritchie said.