Low-cost airlines come under fire for inattention

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Low-cost airlines come under fire for inattention

It took half an hour for a Busan-bound flight to turn back to the Philippine resort island of Cebu when crew members realized Sunday they were flying 10,000 feet above ground with one of the doors ajar.

The gap, which company officials claimed was just 1 or 2 centimeters (0.4 to 0.8 inches), was wide enough cause the cabin to lose air pressure and nauseate many of the 163 passengers onboard.

Similarly, on another flight, which left Gimpo International Airport for Jeju Island 11 days earlier, the pilot realized just 20 minutes before landing that the plane’s pressurization device had gone awry, which forced a steep descent and practically traumatized the 152 people on the plane.

The common factor between the two cases is that they both occurred on low-cost carriers (LCCs).

Amid the recent increase in technical issues plaguing LCCs, local authorities last week declared that they would conduct a thorough inspection on those companies.

A total of six domestic carriers will be subject to the investigation led by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport: Jin Air, Jeju Air, Air Busan, Eastar Jet, T’way Airlines and Air Incheon.

The investigation will cover the airlines’ overall safety management, aircraft maintenance and personnel training. Based on the outcome, the ministry said it would design a blueprint on how low-cost airlines could improve their infrastructure.

“So far, it seems that Jin Air neglected safety guidelines before the plane took off from Cebu,” a source from the Transport Ministry said, hinting that the open door was not the result of a technical issue.

Jin Air acknowledged that it had found nothing defective with the door itself, and that it shut properly when staff members made another attempt upon their arrival back in Cebu.

Lee Yeong-hyeok, a professor at Korea Aerospace University in Goyang, Gyeonggi, asserted that most - if not all - of the recent cases involving low-cost airlines were caused by a lack of manpower and poor quality of training at a time when their services are in high demand.

“It’s hard to say their planes have technical issues, because by law, they’re strictly ordered to meet flight manuals regarding operation. Then it all comes down to human error,” he said.

Since the first low-cost carrier was introduced in 2005, the industry has grown steadily, now covering 54.4 percent of all national flights last year from January to November. Their share of international flights has increased more than three-fold, from 4.3 percent in 2011 to 14.2 percent during the same period in 2015.

Lee Chul-ung, an industrial management engineering professor at Korea University, conceded that the airlines were struggling with personnel training but added that the core of the issue was a lack of manpower.

With the pressure to provide cheap flights and with a limited number of cabin crew, those companies are often stuck with pushing their employees to work extra hours, which then raises the chances that they are underperforming or making mistakes on the plane, Lee said.

BY YUN SUK-MAN, NAM YOON-SEO [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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