Taiwan grounds ATR 72s amid safety concerns

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Story highlights

  • Taiwanese Civil Aerospace Authority (CAA) has ordered all Taiwanese-registered ATR 72's grounded until safety checks can be made
  • Wednesday's fatal accident the second fatal TransAsia incident involving an ATR 72 in less than a year
  • Despite several fatal accidents over its time in service, the "workhorse" has good reputation among pilots

(CNN)Following Wednesday's tragic crash in Taipei, its Civil Aerospace Authority (CAA) has grounded all Taiwanese-registered ATR 72's for safety checks to assess whether they meet the agency's standards.

The checks affect aircraft in the fleets of TransAsia, the airline at the heart of Wednesday's fatal incident, and Uni Air, another local carrier.
    TransAsia operates six ATR 72-500s and four ATR 72-600s including the ATR 72-600 which crashed Wednesday. Uri Air has 12 ATR 72-600s.
    Fred Wu, President of TransAsia Airways, told journalists that the airline was complying with the temporary halt of the company's ATR 72 fleet.
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    "The airline, as requested from the CAA, is specifically checking all ATR aircraft in the fleet. They have not finished checking one until this morning," he said. "Once we have one finished, CAA will confirm the results before we start flying that aircraft again."
    The CAA has also prohibited TransAsia from applying for new traffic rights for a year, according to Taiwan state news agency CNA.

    Engine flameout

    The plane, which reportedly flew three times on Wednesday, appears to have suffered a "flameout" -- an engine failure -- shortly after takeoff.
    "It appears that it could have had a single-engine flameout, it could have had a dual-engine flameout," former ATR pilot Stephen Frederick told CNN's "The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer."
    "Those are things we're going to learn."
    It is the second fatal TransAsia incident involving an ATR 72 in less than a year -- although the plane that crashed in July while attempting to land on Penghu Island, was a ATR 72-500 -- an older model.

    Checkered history

    In its 20-year history, the airline has lost five aircraft, and encountered seven "significant safety incidents," Greg Waldon, Asia Managing Editor of Flightglobal, an industry publication, wrote in an analysis piece.
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    Along with Wednesday's fatal crash, TransAsia planes have been involved in four incidents involving loss of life -- two of which affected only crew, two of which also saw passengers perish. All involved ATR aircraft.
    The planes, which are constructed by a European consortium, have suffered crashes before. ATR 72's, as well as the company's similar, but smaller ATR 42 designation, have previously been involved in a number of incidents.
    No fewer than 11 incidents resulting in passenger deaths involving ATR turboprops have been recorded around the world, including TransAsia's recent crashes.
    During a domestic U.S. flight from Indianapolis to Chicago, an American Eagle ATR 72-200 crashed near Roselawn, Indiana, in 1994 following icing on its wings. All four crew and 64 passengers died.
    An account, "Unheeded Warning" by Frederick, a former American Eagle ATR pilot, is credited in having a role in the subsequent Federal Aviation Administration-ordered grounding of all ATR-72 aircraft. The account alleges that the model had "a history of performance problems in icing conditions."

    Good reputation

    However, Desmond Ross, former pilot and principal of DRA Professional Aviation Services, a consultancy for airlines and aviation authorities, says that amongst his peers, ATR planes have a good reputation.
    "(The ATR 72) is actually a very good aircraft -- it's been around for a while," he says. "It's used extensively in regional services, including by Virgin in Australia. Generally speaking it's a good aircraft.
    "It doesn't have reputation as a difficult plane to fly. I know one guy who has flown them in Africa and Australia who thinks it's a great aircraft. I can't speak to them being dangerous."
    Indeed, the ATR's cost-efficiency has made it a popular choice for airlines, particularly those in the low-cost sector, and on less-popular routes which typically ferry fewer passengers.
    "The ATR is the workhorse of the Asia Pacific turboprop fleet. It is popular among airlines for its relatively low operational costs, particularly in a high-fuel-cost environment, and the type has a dominant market share," Flightglobal's Waldron told CNN.
    However, he would not speculate whether the latest episode would affect the model's continued popularity.
    "It's far too early to say exactly what happened to GE235. The flight will be the subject of a lengthy investigation that will look at factors such as cockpit communications and the aircraft's performance."