Two people died and more than 300 escaped, some sliding down emergency exits, before a fire swept through Asiana's Boeing 777 plane while landing Saturday in San Francisco. It was South Korea's first fatal passenger jet crash since 1997.
"Asiana's accident is going to damage the image of not just Asiana, but all Korean airlines," said Um Kyung A, an analyst at Shinyoung Securities in Seoul. "It only takes one incident to undermine years of work Korean airlines have made to get a solid, accident-free record. This will prompt the government to call for stricter safety measures."
Korean Air, the country's biggest carrier, in 2000 hired two executives who worked with U.S. airlines to help improve its safety standards after a slew of accidents, including a 1997 crash in Guam that killed 228 people. Delta Air Lines temporarily suspended its code-sharing agreement with Korean Air in 1999 after safety records came under scrutiny. The country responded, and Asiana was ranked among the top five global airlines by Skytrax in each of the past five years.
Asiana's Chief Executive Officer Yoon Young Doo apologized Saturday in Seoul.
"We will do our best to help with the investigation," Yoon said. "We will try to take steps to ensure the safety of our flights."
South Korea's transport ministry sent eight investigators to San Francisco on Saturday to work with the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.
The plane's tail hit the ground and broke off, sending the 777 spinning out of control, witnesses have said. The South Korean government said the aircraft carried 307 people from Seoul and the San Francisco Fire Department said 181 were taken to hospitals.
The 291 passengers on flight 214 included 77 Koreans, 141 Chinese and 61 from the U.S., the transport ministry said. There were 16 crew members. The two Chinese passengers who died in the crash sat at the back of the aircraft, Asiana said.
The crash is the most serious aviation accident on U.S. soil since 50 people were killed in 2009 near Buffalo, N.Y., when a turboprop plane flown by Pinnacle Airlines's former Colgan unit plunged to the ground.
All South Korean airlines, including budget carriers, were ordered to ensure safety, the transport ministry said in an email Saturday. The country had no fatal air crashes between December 1999 and July 2011, when an Asiana freighter crashed, the ministry said.
"To prevent a second similar incident from happening, the country's eight carriers are being ordered to ensure safety of their flights," the ministry said. "We will do our utmost to find the cause of the accident and take additional steps to ensure flight safety."
A Korean Air 747-200 cargo plane crashed in December 1999 shortly after taking off from London's Stansted Airport, killing three of its four crew members on board. That was eight months after the airline's MD-11 freighter crashed in Shanghai in April and killed eight people, including those on the ground.
The accidents prompted the government to tighten safety standards at Korean airlines, as well as foreign ones flying into the country. It also strengthened regulations on pilot and maintenance licenses.
Pilots were required to be trained and evaluated at an international center, and airlines were required to fly more hours on domestic routes before obtaining a license to fly overseas. The government also strengthened safety regulations at domestic airports.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration downgraded South Korea to Category 2 safety rating in August 2001 following the accidents. The rating was restored to Category 1, which allowed Korean carriers to open new routes in the U.S. and resume marketing alliances with American carriers, in December that year.
The two pilots on Flight 214 were Lee Jung Min, 49, a graduate of the Korea Aerospace University who joined Asiana in 1996, and Lee Kang Kuk, 46, who started his career at the airline in 1994 and got his pilot's license in 2001, South Korea's Transport Ministry said in an emailed statement.
Lee Jung Min has flown a total of 12,387 hours, 3,220 on a 777, while Lee Kang Kuk has flown a total of 9,793 hours, 43 of which were on a 777, according to the statement.
Asiana is South Korea's second-largest carrier, after Korean Air. The 777-200ER destroyed in the accident was among 12 of that model in Asiana's 78-plane fleet, according to its website.
The plane was added to the fleet in March 2006 and had flown from Seoul to Osaka and back before its flight to San Francisco. It received scheduled maintenance six months ago, Asiana said in an e-mailed statement.
The San Francisco accident was Asiana's worst involving a passenger plane since 1993, when a Boeing 737 crashed in Mokpo, south of Seoul, killing 66 people, according to the National Archives of Korea.
Asiana's previous disaster was the crash of its cargo freighter in the sea south of Jeju island in July 2011. It caused 200.4 billion won ($175 million) of damage, the airline said then. The Boeing 747-400 aircraft was carrying two crew members and 58 tons of cargo to Shanghai from Incheon International Airport.
"The accident will have a negative impact on sentiment in the short term," said Jay Ryu, an analyst at Daewoo Securities in Seoul. "We will have to see the outcome of the investigation before we can be certain what the long term impact will be and what measures need to be taken."
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