YANGON – China’s high-flying aviation ambitions suffered a setback Tuesday as Myanmar grounded several planes made by the Asian powerhouse and Indonesia ordered special checks on its fleet following a series of safety scares.
An MA60 turboprop airliner with 52 people on board crash-landed at an airport in eastern Indonesia on Monday, leaving two passengers with minor injuries and forcing state-owned carrier Merpati to write off the plane. On the same day, an MA60 operated by Myanma Airways and carrying about 60 people skidded off a runway at an airport in southern Myanmar. Nobody was hurt.
It was the second such incident in less than a month involving one of three MA60s owned by Myanma Airways.
“I think the accidents happened because of system failure. We will check all the systems. That’s why we stopped the operation of the planes,” Tin Naing Tun, director general of Myanmar’s Civil Aviation Department, said. “The systems also showed warnings before.”
The Chinese maker of the plane, AVIC Xi’an Aircraft Industry Company, could not be reached for comment.
China is fighting for a bigger share of the multibillion dollar global aviation market. The nation is developing the ARJ21 regional jetliner and the 168-seat C919 plane in the hope of competing with Boeing and Airbus.
But its turboprop-powered airliners have a checkered record. In May 2011, an MA60 operated by Merpati crashed in West Papua province, killing 25 people. Following that accident, Indonesian authorities banned the plane from landing at three airports with difficult approaches.
After the latest incident Monday, Indonesia’s Transport Ministry said it would carry out a “special audit” — the term for checks carried out following serious accidents — on the MA60s. The process will take up to three months, ministry spokesman Bambang Ervan said.
Merpati is the only Indonesian carrier that currently uses the Chinese-made planes, with eight in operation and five more undergoing routine maintenance work, according to airline spokesman Herry Saptanto.
“We have no plans to ground our planes because of (Monday’s) incident,” he added. “Our MA60 aircraft have been certified by Chinese and Indonesian aviation authorities. We will continue to fly them.”
Dudi Sudibyo, senior editor at Indonesian aviation magazine Angkasa, noted however that MA60 planes were not certified as safe by U.S. or EU aviation authorities. “Merpati was too hasty in purchasing the aircraft,” he said.
He said the airline’s pilot training, maintenance procedures and stock of spare parts should be investigated, noting, “They should have grounded the MA60 for a week or two while the investigations are ongoing.”
Other operators of the plane include Lao Airlines, Zest Airways in the Philippines and several Chinese carriers.
Following the 2011 accident, there were calls by Indonesian lawmakers to ban the planes altogether, and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ordered a review into the controversial $220 million deal to buy the MA60s amid allegations of kickbacks and concerns about the planes’ airworthiness.
A special audit carried out after the 2011 accident found the pilot was not familiar with operating the plane and did not find any problems with the aircraft.