BANGKOK (TNA, Gazette): The Ministry of Transport has promised to launch a probe into budget airline Phuket Air following a 24-hour delay in a flight from Bangkok to London which left more than 400 passengers stranded on April 11.
The seriousness with which the ministry is treating the matter was highlighted by the response of Deputy Transport Minister Phumtham Vejjayachai, who immediately convened a meeting of Phuket Air executives and officials from the Department of Aviation.
Speaking after the meeting, K. Phumtham said that he had ordered the department to closely inspect all of the airline’s fleet the same day.
Over the past four weeks, the airline’s planes have malfunctioned – or been thought to have malfunctioned – on five occasions.
On April 2, a Phuket Air Boeing 747-200 from Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport to Gatwick Airport, England made a scheduled refueling stop at Sharjah Airport in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
On takeoff, passengers noticed fuel spilling from one of the wings and suspected a leak.
There were, according to passengers’ statements, scenes of “screaming panic” on board the aircraft, and the airliner returned twice to the apron while engineers sought to identify the cause of the leak.
The airline later stated that the leak was the automatic release – via a “dump mast” – of excess fuel.
Both this aircraft – which eventually flew from Sharjah Airport to Gatwick, albeit with few passengers on board – and another Phuket Air 747, which had brought the remaining stranded passengers to the UK, were inspected by Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) engineers shortly after their arrivals in the UK.
The CAA inspections, which were requested by the UK Department of Transport, revealed shocking safety failures.
The aircraft that sparked the scare was found to have inoperative evacuation safety lights. Although this aged 747-200 was deemed airworthy, the CAA would not allow it to fly with passengers. It returned to Thailand empty.
The second veteran Boeing airliner, which had flown those stranded in the UAE to the UK, departed Gatwick en-route for Bangkok via Sharjah Airport on April 6. About one hour into the flight, the pilot shut down one of the engines and dumped 50 tons of jet fuel at 35,000 feet before heading back to UK airspace to land back at Gatwick.
CAA engineers found that a faulty gearbox seal – blamed on mechanics at Sharjah Airport – had caused the engine failure, but, perhaps more alarmingly, they established that the airliner’s collision avoidance system was not functioning.
CAA officials grounded the aircraft.
The April 11 incident was blamed on a hydraulics failure, as was an aborted March 18 flight from Bangkok to Phuket when the pilot was forced to return to Don Muang Airport and make an emergency landing some 15 minutes after takeoff.
K. Phumtham said that he had ordered a meeting with representatives from all the nation’s airlines, including budget airlines, for today, at which the airlines will be told to follow safety procedures rigorously.
In addition to these problems, Phuket Air’s deputy chief executive, Capt Chawanit Chiamcharoenvut, said that four aircraft that had been sent for maintenance in Indonesia have not yet been returned, and the airline has another two aircraft that need repair work.
As a result, the airline currently states that it has only two aircraft in working order out of a total of 12 listed on its website (www.phuketairlines.com).
According to a statement issued April 11 and posted on the Phuket Air website, “Phuket Air is now actively working to transfer passengers to other airlines that serve the same [international] destinations.
“As it is currently high season, these other airlines are heavily booked, which means we have not been able to transfer every passenger to an alternate flight.
“Therefore, we have arranged for food and accommodations for the remaining passengers who are waiting for the next available flights. We will also provide refunds to those who have canceled their Phuket Air flights.”
A Gazette staffer, due to fly back from Haad Yai to Phuket on Phuket Air today, was told at the check-in desk at the southern airport that his flight had been canceled. No alternative flight was offered, and when he requested a refund, he was told that he “…should ask his tour agent”. He is now traveling back to Phuket by bus.
The Gazette attempted to call the Phuket Air helplines – 02-5356708 and 02-5356696 – but was unable to get through.
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