updated 8/23/2007 9:04:47 PM ET 2007-08-24T01:04:47

Just when Taiwan's China Airlines seemed to be leaving behind a troubled past, it has encountered potentially damaging turbulence.

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The series of explosions that destroyed one of the company's Boeing 737s on Monday were grimly reminiscent of the period from 1991 to 2002, when a string of China Airlines disasters claimed the lives of 693 passengers and crew. Though no one died in this week's accident at Japan's Naha airport — all aboard escaped moments before the fuselage erupted in flames — it raised questions about how far the carrier has progressed.

The persistent doubts seem incongruous for a company headquartered in Taiwan, which over the past four decades has transformed itself from an agricultural backwater to vital link in the global high-tech chain, with a reputation for precision and digital innovation.

Critics lay the blame on a deadly mixture of intrusive government involvement and a corporate culture that places more emphasis on hierarchy than teamwork and disdains basic accountability. From in-flight menus with comical English misspellings to senior executives passing the buck, they say, the carrier needs a thorough overhaul to get its act in order.

"There's a selfishness there," said local aviation expert Earl Wieman. "You live in your own sphere, you don't care about others, you are indifferent to things around you."

However, some international aviation analysts question whether China Airlines is really that bad. They acknowledge its poor safety record in the 1990s, but say that recently it has made impressive improvements in the performance of both pilots and maintenance staff.

"They've really done very well over the last two years," said Singapore-based Nicholas Ionides of Flight International magazine. "They've focused a lot on trying to eliminate human error."

Adds Jan-Arwed Richter, a Hamburg, Germany-based aviation specialist who compiles a detailed aviation safety index: "I definitely cannot support the argument that CAL relapsed back into (the) bad times of the past."

China Airlines would not comment directly on safety issues. In an e-mail to The Associated Press, company spokesman Johnson Sun said the carrier was attending to the needs of passengers involved in the Naha incident and that the crew had performed bravely in supervising the emergency evacuation on the tarmac.

Retired Taiwanese air force officers founded China Airlines in 1959. It is controlled by a quasi-governmental organization, the China Aviation Development Foundation, which owns a 62 percent stake.

Pressured by the government to privatize and become more accountable, the foundation tried to sell 35 percent of its stake in 2000, but there were no takers. Analysts have said the carrier's struggle to become safer was a major reason it couldn't find a partner.

Still, it has good access to funding and boasts a fleet of Boeing and Airbus aircraft with an average age of 5.3 years — far below the industry average.

In recent years, China Airlines has made a big push to improve its record, hiring a longtime Swissair pilot to leaven the militaristic culture that once dominated the carrier's cockpits. It also brought on a veteran engineering specialist from Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific to help on maintenance.

The moves appeared to have paid off. China Airlines' last fatal accident was in 2002, when a 747 broke up in midair between Taipei and Hong Kong. Since then, said Kay Yong, former chairman of Taiwan's Cabinet-level Aviation Safety Council, the carrier has made "good, honest efforts at every level."

This week's accident raises doubts. While the formal verdict on this week's incident in Naha is still months away, Japanese officials say preliminary indications suggest a massive fuel leak from the right engine — a possible indication of shoddy maintenance.

Taiwanese opposition lawmaker Lee Hung-chun — a longtime member of the Legislature's Transportation Committee — said a major problem is poor leadership among a senior management better at fawning to political masters than conducting reforms.

Lee compared China Airlines to privately held Eva Airways, Taiwan's other major international carrier, which in 16 years of flying has been accident free and has a good reputation among fliers.

"If EVA were involved in an accident, then the boss would have to take money out of (shareholders') pockets," he said. "That's the difference between China Airlines and EVA."

While Lee's comments strike a chord with many local critics, foreign experts say state control in no way dooms an airline to second-rate status.

Chris Yates of the British-based Jane's Airport Review said China Airlines is now on a par with other Asian carriers, which include perennial passenger favorites like Singapore Airlines, whose majority stakeholder is a Singapore government investment company.

"CAL has certainly had a number of issues in recent years in terms of maintenance and safety of its fleet of aircraft," he said. "But it is not really different from other airlines in region."

Yates said bringing in outside experts had definitely helped the carrier's performance, though there is room for further improvement.

China Airlines hopes to contain the damage. It published an apology in major Japanese newspapers Wednesday, and had workers excise the company logo and trademark plum flower on the tail wing of the mangled aircraft at the Naha airport.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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