RANGOON — As Burma’s economy grows and tourist arrivals rise, aviation safety will be increasingly put to the test in a country long ago described as Southeast Asia’s air travel hub, but which more recently acquired a reputation for having one of the region’s worst air safety records.
“We believe we can handle that,” said Win Swe Tun, deputy director general at the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA), when asked by The Irrawaddy if Burma’s air traffic infrastructure could safely manage a possible increase in tourist numbers from 2 million in 2013 to a projected 7 million foreign arrivals per year by 2020.
Earlier, DCA officials speaking at the Myanmar Civil Aviation Conference 2014 said Burma’s air traffic had increased by 32 percent each year over the past two years, with even higher growth expected in the coming years as tourist numbers rise and Burma’s economy expands.
The concern is that as Burma’s government strains to push potentially lucrative growth sectors of the economy, such as tourism, safety issues could be overlooked or underserved.
Absent commensurate improvements to air traffic and security management at Burma’s airports, “any increase in airport capacity is futile,” said Hai Eng Chiang, director of Asia-Pacific affairs at the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO), which represents the interests of the world’s air navigation service providers.
Tike Aung, director of air traffic safety at the DCA, which is part of Burma’s Transport Ministry, said aviation safety needs to be publicized and air traffic management systems upgraded, as flight and passenger numbers rise.
“The main challenges are to increase the capacity of the air traffic management system and to promote air traffic safety,” Tike Aung said.
But as any visitor to one of Burma’s airports can attest, security is often lax and the attendant technology antiquated. Pointing out a contrast in procedures between Burma’s often old, run-down airports and bigger hubs overseas, Yoshiyuki Hoshiyama, who is senior executive officer at Narita International Airport Corporation, listed biometric passenger gates and vehicle license plate recognition as other hi-tech essentials for airport security.
Such technology is yet to be put in place even in Rangoon’s main airport, which serves for now as the country’s main international gateway, pending construction of a 12 million passengers per year capacity airport in Pegu Division, about an hour’s drive north of the old Burmese capital.
Burma has 66 airports and airstrips across a terrain the size of metropolitan France and England combined, and of those, three—in Mandalay, Naypyidaw and Rangoon—are listed as international airports.
Ensuring that Burma can implement a viable air safety system in years to come is not just a job for government officials, contends Win Swe Tun, who says the country’s eight domestic airlines must shoulder some of the responsibility.
“On the ground, a lot of the safety and security is down to airport operators and airlines, not just the regulator. It is a common effort,” Win Swe Tun told The Irrawaddy.
Ensuring the country has a reputation for safety as traveler numbers increase can heighten appeal to tourists in what is a competitive region.
As Burma’s government seeks development aid and foreign backers for new and revamped airports, and with foreign airlines looking at joint ventures with Burmese counterparts, cultivating an image of safety and security could play a part in convincing investors.
A recent report on Burma’s economy by the Oxford Business Group said that “the commercial aviation industry is also of great interest to investors, as it offers an opportunity for sizable returns.”
But, the Oxford Business Group warned, “the sector is still in a relatively undeveloped state and the risks are many,” adding that “mishaps, however small, can cause severe reputational damage and have the potential to weaken airlines, deter travelers and frighten investors.”
“Some airlines have very good standard procedures and safety management systems, but there are still some weaknesses inside some airlines and some airports,” Win Swe Tun conceded.