BANGKOK, Thailand — The motto for AirAsia, the carrier that recently lost a plane full of passengers off the coast of Indonesia, is “Now Everyone Can Fly.”
That slogan might help explain why Indonesian flights have been so prone to both small mishaps and outright disasters in the past decade.
Not everyone can fly in Indonesia, where roughly half of the 250 million people gets by on less than $2 per day. But the island nation — along with the rest of Southeast Asia — does have a booming middle class that can finally afford to fly instead of taking a creaky bus.
Their appetite for inexpensive flights is fed by a dizzying number of budget airlines, many of which are quite new. But AirAsia is the region’s undisputed budget flight king, a carrier known for hostesses in snug red skirts. Its network is huge and covers podunk towns, major capitals, and all points in between.
Its flights are also dirt cheap.
The jet that disappeared — flying from Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city, to cosmopolitan Singapore — travels on a route offering tickets for as little as $28. AirAsia flights lasting under an hour often sell for less than $100.
AirAsia’s founder, a charismatic Malaysian named Tony Fernandes, is unabashedly frugal. An aviation industry colleague previously told GlobalPost that “Tony is the guy who would come to conferences and collect all the free pens to save money.”
Since the 1970s, Singapore Airlines has tried to project an image of glamorous travel to Southeast Asia. But today, the typical flier here is a workaday commuter packed into an AirAsia flight eating $1 instant noodles.
AirAsia’s popularity has inspired quite a few budget airline imitators. Southeast Asia’s skies are now more crowded than ever. Case in point: when pilots on missing flight 8501 sought permission to ascend to 38,000 feet, the request was rejected because there were too many other jets flying nearby.
The tempo of flights over Southeast Asia is set to increase even more. There are more than 800 small, single-aisle airplanes operating in Southeast Asia today but, according to Boeing, that figure will explode to nearly 3,000 in the next two decades.
All those added flights require a rapid expansion of skilled air traffic controllers, ground crews, pilots and safety officials. Some worry the region’s aviation system could crack under the pressure.
In Indonesia — a sprawling archipelago known for low pay and corruption — the prognosis is a bit worrisome.
The last decade has seen at least four crashes involving hundreds of fatalities along with recurring non-fatal mishaps and various other scandals, including one airline called Lion Air that fired multiple pilots for getting high on meth. Indonesian aviation has seen a safety turnaround in recent years yet all but a few carriers are deemed unsafe to fly into Europe.
While AirAsia’s safety record was solid until Sunday, the flight 8501 disaster comes at a woeful time for Southeast Asian aviation, which is still reeling from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which mysteriously vanished, and flight 17, downed over Ukraine.
AirAsia’s Fernandes, who told GlobalPost in 2009 that he’s an “incorrigible optimist,” described the plane’s disappearance as his “worst nightmare.” But there is little indication that the crisis will dent the demand for more and more cheap flights, which keeps putting pressure on an already overtaxed aviation system.
By: Patrick Winn, GlobalPost
This article is syndicated from Global Post.