The insights into the state of air safety in Taiwan are getting uglier in the aftermath of the February 4 crash of a TransAsia ATR turbo-prop into a river near Taipei, which killed 43 of the 58 people on board.

By yesterday, 10 out of 49 of TransAsia’s ATR pilots had failed tests for essential skills in the event of a take-off engine failure similar to the one last week, in which the plane clipped an elevated bridge and then slammed into the city’s Keelung River.

Around 20 more TransAsia pilots remain to be checked.

Last week, Taiwan air safety said TransAsia Airways had not even completed a third of its required safety improvements after a fatal crash last year of another of its ATR turbo-props, which struck buildings while making a second attempt to land at an airport closed because of bad weather.

That disclosure quickly backfired on the Taiwan air-safety administration by showing how hopeless it had been in the oversight and enforcement of its civil-aviation regulations.

The flight that crashed last week experienced an engine “issue” while taxiing, which the pilots assessed as transitory according to testimony from a surviving passenger who was so concerned at the noise it made that he shifted to a seat further away from it.

However, immediately after takeoff on the short flight to Kinmen Island, the plane’s right-hand engine failed. Although the crew had been trained in procedures to fly on one engine prior to an immediate return to the airport they inadvertently shut down the other, left-hand engine.

According to the released transcript of the cockpit voice recorder the confused crew was able to re-start the “good engine”, but it was too late for them to recover full control of the flight before it crashed.

These disclosures will be read with dread by ATR operators, and airline-safety managers more generally, in terms of how swiftly matters can go wrong in a power crisis soon after takeoff. The safety lessons arising from this accident will be of much greater importance to airlines, their regulators, and their customers than “just a small but unfortunate turbo-prop crash in another country”.

The apparent neglect of safety standards by both the Taiwan air safety regulator and the airline seems bad enough. But the sequence of events on board this turbo-prop, including apparently ignoring a pre-flight indication of an engine “problem”, poses very important issues for airlines everywhere.

Did the regulator value its relationship with the airline more than its obligation to passenger safety? Was it more a facilitator than regulator?

Is it possible that airline operations can become so fixed on adhering to schedule that the safety culture becomes degraded to the point where “pressing on regardless” can end in death?

All airline managements need to consider that issue very, very carefully.

Peter Fray

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