Plane Talk: Why did crashed Air Niugini flight have so many crew members on board?

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Everyone loves a story that begins: “All the passengers and crew escaped without serious injury after …”

That so many aviation incidents are survivable is a tribute to the airline industry’s obsession with safety.

Less helpful headlines, such as “Miracle as passengers survive after plane crashes into sea,” play to travellers’ fears about the risks of aviation. On the contrary: danger is designed out as much as possible. And even when a plane is written off, integral safety precautions can mean all the passengers may walk away. Or, in the case of Air Niugini flight 73, float away.

You will probably be aware of this incident on Friday morning, 28 September, after a Boeing 737-800 aircraft “landed short at Chuuk International airport runway,” according to the Papua New Guinea national airline.

While Air Niugini and safety regulators study what went wrong with the flight, I have been looking at what went wrong with the airline.

Sometimes, the minutiae of an accident provides revelations about the state of the airline. And so it has proved with flight PX073.

The airline had configured the 737 to carry 158 passengers. But the fated flight appears to have had only 35 paying travellers. At least that meant more room for the crew, who numbered 12.

Now, on a wide-bodied, long-haul Boeing 787 or Airbus A330, a dozen crew is just what you need: a couple of pilots and 10 cabin crew. But for relatively short hops in the South Pacific, 12 crew is frankly excessive.

For a flight on Ryanair, which has the same plane but fitted with 189 seats, the normal complement is six: two on the flight deck, four in the cabin.

To be kind, let me assume a check pilot was on board the Air Niugini flight, to assess either the captain or first officer – though having a highly experienced aviator on board would make the undershoot all the more inexplicable. In addition, let’s assume two cabin crew for first class and three for the back of the plane, and a supernumerary to boot.

I can still only get to nine. All right, 10, if you add an engineer in case of mechanical issues on remote Pacific islands.

Perhaps the remaining two were sky marshals? I am clutching at straws now. But any airline that is paying a dozen people to operate a short – 1,200-mile – narrow-bodied flight between Chuuk and Port Moresby has to be flying lots of passengers at high fares.

High fares certainly prevail. I made a series of test bookings on the route, which is about the same distance as Manchester to Malaga. The standard economy fare is the equivalent of £465. No wonder the plane was three-quarters empty.

I am not suggesting for a moment that it is easy to run an airline in a tricky part of the world.

The Foreign Office makes it clear how difficult it is to fly in Papua New Guinea: “Given the challenging terrain, extreme weather conditions and the condition of some remote airfields in PNG, flying in PNG carries greater safety risks than flying in the UK.

“Since 2000 over 20 aircraft accidents have happened in Papua New Guinea. The worst recent crash was on 13 April 2016, when a Sunbird Aviation PNG Britten-Norman Islander aircraft crashed at Kinuga Airport, killing all 12 people on board.”

By contrast, European aviation enjoys a remarkably benign environment. It would be absurd to expect fares in the South Pacific be as low – typically £100 each way for a three-hour flight – and load factors as high, at 90 per cent-plus, as in Western Europe. But neighbouring Indonesia has a flourishing low-cost airline industry.

Air Niugini might want to redeploy some of those excess crew to study the likes of Air Asia and Lion Air, and learn lessons on how cutting fares stimulates demand, and the appropriate staffing levels to make a flight profitable.

Lion Air also has some experience of crash landing in water, mind, having lost an identical Boeing 737-800 in 2013, in very similar circumstances in Bali. Again, everyone survived. On that occasion, though, there were many more passengers and fewer crew.

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