China Airlines report must be made public

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 September, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 September, 2003, 12:00am

The graphic images we publish today depicting the final moments of ill-fated flight CI 642 serve as a powerful reminder of the dangers inherent in air travel. While statistics show flying to be relatively safe, every passenger knows only too well that when things go wrong, tragedy often follows.

Anyone who watches the dramatic video footage of the China Airlines plane crashing at Chek Lap Kok in 1999 is likely to be left with a sense of disbelief that all but three of the 315 people on board survived. As the pictures show, the jet flipped over on the runway when attempting to land during Typhoon Sam and was engulfed in a huge fireball. While the images renew feelings of sympathy for those who lost loved ones in the crash, and for the 211 victims injured, they also underline how important it is to establish how the tragedy occurred and what needs to be done to prevent similar accidents.

But four years after the China Airlines crash, the findings of a Hong Kong Civil Aviation Department (CAD) inquiry have still not been made public. Instead, the report has been sent privately to parties directly involved in the investigation, including China Airlines. This has, in turn, led to information being leaked to the effect that the report blames pilot Gerardo Lettich for failing to properly control the plane. But the public has not been allowed to see the context in which such findings were made, or the evidence upon which they were based. Mr Lettich, who appears to be targeted, has not even been sent a copy of the report. He has every right to feel he has been unjustly treated.

But the more serious consequence of keeping it under wraps is that the public have been denied information which could help guard against a tragedy of this kind happening again. We do not know what lessons have been learned or recommendations made. This is an unacceptable state of affairs. The report should have been published long ago. There are also questions about the way in which the inquiry was conducted, with the CAD facing allegations it failed to properly interview Mr Lettich, failed to follow international practice, and lacked input from relevant experts.

One experienced investigator last year branded the probe 'Third World'. The CAD has defended the inquiry, but the row does little to enhance confidence in Hong Kong's ability to deal with such investigations.

We will have the opportunity to put this right next month when a review board begins considering a challenge by China Airlines to the findings of the inquiry. This time, the proceedings are expected to be held in public and will be presided over by a lawyer or magistrate. It is vital for Hong Kong's reputation, and for the good of the air travel industry in general, that the inquiry proves to be meticulously fair, thorough and transparent.

Whether due to pilot error, a technical fault, or wind conditions at the airport, it is time the truth about flight CI 642 is made known.