[NOTEBOOK]Ministry to Blame for Air Safety Debacle

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[NOTEBOOK]Ministry to Blame for Air Safety Debacle

In May, personnel from the United States' Federal Aviation Administration visited Korea to inspect Korea's aviation safety. Upon their return to the States they gave Korea an interim "Category 2" classification.

Korea had failed in all eight inspection categories.

On 15 July, a second team of FAA inspectors visited Korea to take another look before the FAA made its final decision. Three days after the inspection team left this country, the Ministry of Construction and Transportation gleefully announced that the FAA had confirmed that improvements had been made since the first inspection. Almost all of the domestic press delivered the news under headlines such as "Korea Likely to Escape Air Safety Category 2" and even "Category 1 Set to Be Continued."

A week later, a plaque of appreciation was sent to Kang Dong-suk, the president of Incheon International Airport Corp. The sender was Jane Garvey, the head of the FAA, with her congratulations on the successful launch of the airport. Incheon International Airport Corp. took the plaque as an assurance that the FAA had given Korea a good evaluation. It assumed the outcome of the aviation safety inspection was no longer in jeopardy.

Then came the formal confirmation that Korea had been downgraded to Category 2.

People say that an impending crisis which people are aware of is not a real crisis, because it is common sense to prepare for a problem you can see approaching. "Forewarned is forearmed," they say.

Several warnings and indications were given on air safety matters both inside and outside the country since June 2000, but the Transportation Ministry ignored them. The ministry was lazy in preparing, in the belief that nothing would come of the warnings. It failed to understand the full gravity of the situation, even as the embarrassment of a Category 2 label loomed large.

The consequences of this complacency are huge. Experts say the financial damage for Korean Air and Asiana Airlines caused by the lurch down to a Category 2 ranking will reach 230 billion won ($180 million) a year. Korea now has the same air safety ranking as developing nations such as Bangladesh and Zambia. What a blow - and just a year before hosting the World Cup soccer games!

The Transportation Ministry continues to disappoint us. After it heard the bad news, it complained that the United States had broken a promise to have one more consultation with the ministry before its final decision. The ministry continues to fail to grasp the seriousness of the situation and gropes for excuses. The final decision will not be changed, even if the ministry manages to secure one more consultation.

The downgrading has generated a conspiracy theory. It states that the United States wishes to get Korea - a major air market - firmly into line, particularly before next May, the beginning of the World Cup, when there will be an influx of foreign visitors to Korea. It also suggests that the United States wishes to get more profits for its own airlines, which will see more business from passengers scared away from the Korean airlines by the ranking. It's a plausible theory, but there is no evidence. And even so, it is natural for a country to make decision for the benefit of its own national profits in international relations. "National profit first" is also a principle Korea says it embraces - the only problem is, it has failed to defend it.

The transportation ministry has continuously failed to act upon firm principles. Early this month, the transportation ministry distributed new international air routes and flights to Korean Air and Asiana. Though there were several extra routes, the two firms competed most fiercely over the extra 21 flights a week from Seoul to Tokyo, dubbed the "golden route" because of its profitability. The transportation ministry gave every new Seoul-Tokyo flight to Asiana Airlines. Korean Air complained vociferously after being given several new, less profitable air routes, including some to China.

There are always disputes whenever the ministry distributes new routes. Why? Because it seems to be acting on no clear principles.


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The writer is international economic news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Shim Shang-bok

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