Setback on Korean arrivals

Asiana Airlines’ flights to Saipan suspended for 7 days

The CNMI’s recovering tourism industry faces a new setback that could cost millions of dollars in revenue loss, this time from Asiana Airlines’ seven-day suspension of flights between Incheon and Saipan as ordered by the South Korean government last week over safety rules violation in April. Korea is a major CNMI tourism market.

Gov. Eloy S. Inos and Marianas Visitors Authority managing director Perry Tenorio separately said yesterday there are no specific dates yet on the flight suspension—an unprecedented sanction by the South Korean government that’s expected to cost Asiana Airlines some $3.9 million in lost revenue.

The governor conceded that the flight suspension is going to be a “major setback” for the CNMI’s tourism industry.

South Korea’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport announced last week that a seven-member administrative review committee decided to ban Asiana Airlines from operating its Incheon-Saipan route for seven days, but fell short of announcing when that penalty will be carried out.

But a decision is expected before the end of June.

The ministry said Asiana Airlines continued with a passenger jet flight, OZ603, from Incheon to Saipan on April 19 despite discovering signs of engine trouble after takeoff. A warning light came on, signaling a problem in one of the plane’s two engines.

The problem concerned a blockage in one of the engine oil filters in the twin-engine B767 jet carrying 253 passengers, a report from the Wall Street Journal says.

The ministry said under the rules, Asiana Airlines should have immediately landed at the nearest airport but they flew all the way to Saipan, putting hundreds of passengers at risk. The aircraft landed safely on Saipan after a four-hour flight.

According to Korean and U.S. media reports, the ministry already suspended the Asiana Airlines captain’s license for 30 days and imposed an almost $20,000 fine on Asiana Airlines for filing a false report on the status of the plane’s engine at the time of the incident.

Inos, who received word about the South Korean government sanction on Asiana Airlines on Friday, said he will receive a briefing from MVA today and from Asiana Airlines on Tuesday. MVA itself has limited information about the suspension as of the weekend.

Rep. Ralph Yumul (Ind-Saipan), chairman of the House Committee on Tourism, said he’s hoping that the Inos administration and MVA will work with Asiana Airlines to “soften the blow” to the CNMI of the Asiana Airlines flight suspension.

“The CNMI should not be penalized by the actions of Asiana crews. It’s not fair for us,” Yumul told Saipan Tribune.

He suggests options to cushion the impact of a seven-day suspension of flights to and from Saipan, including “spreading out the days” when the flights are suspended and using other aircraft and airlines that are also part of Star Alliance to service the flights to and from Saipan during the supposed suspension days.

“This will have direct impact on our tourist arrivals, economy in general and budgeting. There’s also ripple effect. Travelers from Korea could be fearful about flying to Saipan because of this, and that’s revenue loss for us too,” he added.

Yumul said the over $2 million revenue loss to the CNMI that he was earlier quoted by other media was only his preliminary calculation and at the time of the interview, he didn’t have concrete information as to which Asiana Airlines flights will be affected.

This was the first time for an airline to be forced to stop operating by South Korea as a result of safety rules violation rather than crash-related accidents. Normally violators would be slapped with a fine.

The suspension could further tarnish the image of South Korea’s second-largest flagship carrier, following the crash of one of its aircraft at San Francisco International Airport in July last year.

Kwon Yong-bok, director general of South Korea’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport’s aviation safety department and also one of the committee members, said the ministry will consider allowing other airlines, possibly Jeju Air to fly to and from Saipan while Asiana flights are suspended.

Jeju Air is scheduled to launch an Incheon-Saipan flight in October.

”We will put top priority on minimizing inconvenience for people traveling to and from Saipan. We will issue an early notice of when Asiana cannot fly,” the director general was quoted as saying.

Haidee V. Eugenio | Reporter
Haidee V. Eugenio has covered politics, immigration, business and a host of other news beats as a longtime journalist in the CNMI, and is a recipient of professional awards and commendations, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental achievement award for her environmental reporting. She is a graduate of the University of the Philippines Diliman.

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