Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Britons are joining a £125m lawsuit over the Phuket Thailand disaster

Families blame lax safety for budget airline crash

Wreckage of Phuket air disaster
Wreckage of Phuket air disaster

The wreckage of a One-Two-Go passenger plane in Phuket
Michael Sheridan in Bangkok

LAWYERS for the British and American families of victims of an air crash in Thailand are seeking £125m compensation in the US courts in a case that may shed a harsh light on cost-cutting and safety standards at some budget airlines.

The lawsuits follow the disaster on the holiday island of Phuket when an MD82 airliner operated by One-Two-Go, a Thai low-cost carrier, crashed on landing in heavy rain and wind on September 16 last year.

Eight Britons were among the 89 people who died. There were 41 survivors, some of them badly burnt after the plane slewed off the runway, hit an embankment and caught fire.

The captain, Arief Mulyadi, 56, from Indonesia, and his Thai co-pilot were killed on impact. Thai press reports say government investigators have reached an initial finding that pilot error was to blame.

Since the accident the airline has denied allegations by some of its former pilots that crews worked excessive hours and that maintenance standards were lax.

“We believe the air crash was completely avoidable and those responsible should be held to account,” said a statement from the parents of Alex Collins and Bethan Jones, a British couple who died.

“While we accept that nothing can bring Alex and Bethan and the other people who lost their lives back, we are keen to make sure we prevent this from happening again.”

Some British relatives of the victims have lent their names to an internet campaign by Bonnie Rind, an American whose brother died in the crash, calling for prosecutions in Thailand. Rind is also asking for an inquiry by the US National Transportation Safety Board.

She has obtained numerous documents, including what she says is a transcript of material from the flight recorders. Rind said she was confident that the chilling details of the transcript, which appear to show confusion on the flight deck, were accurate.

Flight OG269 from Bangkok was buffeted by heavy weather as it came in for landing. After a warning from the control tower of wind shear - a sudden, violent gust - the Thai co-pilot, who was flying the aircraft, opted to “go around” for a second approach.

However, according to the transcript provided by Rind, neither he nor Arief engaged the correct controls after retracting the wheels. As the MD82 continued to sink towards the runway, the co-pilot’s last words were, “You have control.” There was no response from Arief.

For 15 seconds the engines could be heard idling as the MD82 descended, then for four seconds they roared to full power as an attempt was apparently made to save the aircraft.

Two seconds before the crash a wind shear alarm went off. Then there was silence.

“It was clearly pilot error,” said Rind, a software engineer with a background in aviation. “There was no evidence of anything wrong with the plane.” She believes the captain was incompetent and was probably suffering from fatigue.

Arief had a history of freezing at the controls during crises and had been working excessive hours, according to a documentary by Australia’s Channel Nine television.

Crew rosters showed that at the time of the crash Arief had worked longer than the 110 hours a month allowed by Thai regulators. These rosters were handed to the authorities by the makers of the documentary. The programme interviewed François Wurst, a former pilot for One-Two-Go, who said he was flying with Arief on a charter for the United Nations in 2006 into Kabul to pick up Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, when the Indonesian “mentally froze” during rough weather on the approach.

Other former pilots gave hair-raising stories of shoddy maintenance and pressure to work excessive hours as the airline cut costs when tourism collapsed after the 2004 tsunami. They claimed there were constant faults with electronics, hydraulics and engines on the fleet of MD82s and Boeing 757s.

Udom Tantiprasongchai, the founder of One-Two-Go, has firmly denied the allegations.

James Healy-Pratt of Stew-arts Law, a London firm acting for six Britons, said: “The families and victims are taking action in the US courts to force One-Two-Go to prove that they are not a low-cost, low-safety airline.”

The American courts are involved because the Thai airline has business connections in the United States and the plane was made by McDonnell Doug-las, later bought by Boeing. The MD82 that crashed was first delivered to American Airlines in December 1983.

US lawyers intend to name Boeing in the lawsuits, along with One-Two-Go, its parent company Orient Thai Airlines and Grandmax Group, a company connected to them which leased the doomed aircraft.

The action will be closely watched in the London aviation insurance market because One-Two-Go and Orient Thai are insured by syndicates at Lloyd’s, plus other insurers.

Udom said the company had paid medical expenses and other costs for survivors and had settled claims in 26 cases.

“We, with our insurers, are trying to resolve the remaining claims as quickly and fairly as possible,” he added.

Yesterday Thai media reports said One-Two-Go is to cease flying “temporarily” due to cost pressures caused by oil prices and market conditions.

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