China's MA60 planes in spotlight after safety incidents

YANGON (AFP) - China's high-flying aviation ambitions suffered a setback on Tuesday as Myanmar grounded several planes made by the Asian powerhouse and Indonesia ordered special checks on its fleet following a series of safety incidents.

An MA60 turbo-prop airliner with 52 people on board crash-landed at an airport in eastern Indonesia on Monday, leaving two passengers with minor injuries and forcing state-owned carrier Merpati to write off the plane.

On the same day an MA60 operated by Myanma Airways carrying about 60 people skidded off a runway at a domestic airport in southern Myanmar, although nobody was hurt.

It was the second such incident in less than a month involving one of three MA60s owned by Myanma Airways.

"I think the accidents happened because of system failure. We will check all the systems. That's why we stopped the operation of the planes," Tin Naing Tun, director general of Myanmar's Civil Aviation Department, told AFP.

"The systems also showed warnings before," he added.

The Chinese maker of the plane, AVIC Xi'an Aircraft Industry Company, could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

China is fighting for a bigger piece of the multi-billion dollar global aviation market with home-grown technology.

The communist nation is developing the ARJ-21 regional jetliner and the 168-seat C919 plane in the hope of competing with Boeing and Airbus.

Its turboprop-powered airliners have a chequered record. In May 2011 an MA60 operated by Merpati crashed in West Papua province, killing 25 people.

Following that accident, Indonesian authorities banned the plane from landing at three airports with difficult approaches.

After the latest incident on Monday, Indonesia's transport ministry said it would carry out a "special audit" - the term given to checks carried out following serious accidents - on the MA60s.

The process would take up to three months, ministry spokesman Bambang Ervan told AFP.

"We will investigate how maintenance work was carried out, the availability of spare parts, crew training, and all matters related to operations," Ervan said.

Merpati is the only carrier in Indonesia which currently uses the Chinese-made planes, with eight in operation and five more undergoing routine maintenance work, according to airline spokesman Herry Saptanto.

"We have no plans to ground our planes because of yesterday's incident," he added.

"Our MA60 aircraft have been certified by Chinese and Indonesian aviation authorities. We will continue to fly them." Other operators of the plane include Lao Airlines, Philippines' Zest Airways and several Chinese carriers.

Following the 2011 accident, there were calls by Indonesian lawmakers to ban the planes altogether.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ordered a review into the controversial US$220 million (S$276 million) deal to buy the MA60s amid allegations of kickbacks and concerns about the planes' air-worthiness.

A special audit carried out after the 2011 accident found the pilot was not familiar with operating the plane, and did not find any problems with the aircraft, according to Ervan.

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