Low-Cost and High-Risk

See Also: Fiery End to Phuket-Bound Plane

The crash of Thai budget carrier One-Two-Go’s MD82 airliner in Phuket Sunday, killing 88 of the people aboard, is the latest ominous reminder of how low-cost airlines have proliferated across Asia in the past half decade, raising a multitude of questions about their safety records.

In addition to the One-Two-Go crash, since 2005 an MD82 owned by low-cost carrier LionAir skidded off the runway in heavy rain in Solo, Indonesia, killing 26 people; a Mandala Airlines Boeing 737 crashed in Medan, Indonesia,. killing 102 people on the plane and 47 on the ground; an elderly Antonov 24 on a scheduled domestic flight by PMT Air of Cambodia crashed into a mountain between Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, killing all 22, and an Adam Air flight was lost off the coast of Indonesia, killing all 102 passengers and crew aboard.

As the race for market share has intensified across Asia, fares have dropped to such low levels that it becomes questionable how carriers can maintain safety inspection standards, especially in countries where regulation is often suspect and regional airports can be chancy at best. In Malaysia, some promotional fares between domestic cities are as low as 0.88 ringgit – 28 US cents. Two low-cost carriers – AirAsia X and Jetstar, this month begin offering promotional flights from Kuala Lumpur to Melbourne, a distance of more than 6350 kilometers, for just RM10 (US$2.89).

Deregulation has had a dramatic impact, putting flag carriers on the back foot, particularly in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Airlines in Singapore and Australia have responded by starting their own low-cost carriers, others have simply not been able to cope. The regional carrier Silk Air, owned by Singapore Airlines International, for instance, charged US$400 for a round-trip ticket to Phnom Penh in Cambodia until it was forced to cut its prices in half when a low-budget carrier, Jet Star Asia, started flying the same route.

As an example of this proliferation, Indonesia now has 51 airlines to supplement the lackluster Garuda International, plying routes between its 17,000-odd islands and overseas – and all 51 are currently barred from landing in Europe because of safety concerns. In India, low-cost operations now account for 44 percent of all flights, compared to 22% in the UK and 19% in the United States. Low-budget flights increased by 62 percent in a single year, according to the OAG Travel Information website. According to a 2006 Business Week article, the number of low-cost flights operating to and from Asia grew by 666 percent in a single year. Some 774 low-cost flights were available in Asia in a single month, compared to 101 a month in October 2004.

That enormous increase has put strains on the entire industry, from trained ground personnel to pilots to slots at airports. China and India, for instance, are expected to require some 4,000 new pilots each year. The latest available figures indicate that while there are 1.2 million pilots, only 14 percent have qualified for the Professional Airline Pilots License that allows them into the cockpits of the world’s airlines.

Many are popping up across the world from Eastern Europe, as militaries downsize. And, while the military turns out many who quit and look for private sector jobs, airlines are very twitchy about military pilots. They tend to take far more chances, industry sources say, and they don’t follow orders as well. Plus the experience of flying an F-16 jet and switching to a wide-body is about the equivalent of driving a Formula 1 race car and then trying to pilot a 16-wheel diesel truck with two trailers. China Airlines, the Taiwanese flag carrier, ultimately gave up hiring military pilots after compiling a bleak safety record.

Indonesia especially seems a black hole for air safety. As Asia Sentinel reported last January, the leader is Adam Air, the Indonesian carrier whose Boeing 737-400 disappeared in flight in on New Year’s Day. Pieces were later found 300 kilometers offshore. In February, yet another Adam Air 737 hit the ground so hard at the Surabaya airport that the plane cracked in half. In addition, in February 2006 another Adam Air plane lost its navigational and communications systems on a flight between Jakarta and Makassar and was for several hours, ultimately making an emergency landing at another airport. Numerous reports have alleged a variety of corrupt practices including bribing pilots to fly planes they knew were unsafe. Adam Air has denied the charges.

In Thailand, lots of questions have been raised not only about the safety record of One-Two-Go’s owner, Orient Thai, but about the industry as a whole. By mid-2004, the government had issued 23 licenses for scheduled and charter-service airlines, although only nine were in use. The proliferation of airlines led to calls for reform. The required registered capital for an airline company jumped from 50 million to 200 million baht, but no other serious safety precautions were taken. Budget airline Phuket Air was banned from flying in England, France, the Netherlands and eventually all of Europe due to serious mechanical flaws with its planes. In Thailand, it had five twin-engine prop planes grounded after one skidded off the runway in Mae Sot, stopping just before it plowed into a nearby gas station.

Deregulation in Indonesia has encouraged scores of new operators, causing a surge in domestic passenger growth of almost 30 percent a year between 2000 and 2005. In 2006, 34 million passengers flew on Indonesian airlines, up from 7.6 million in 2000. With more than 235 million people, Indonesia has 450 airports with profound differences in navigational and landing aids, weather conditions and air traffic density. An audit of the country’s airlines found seven deemed as “least safe.” Eleven more fell into a category that said civil aviation requirements had not been implemented and problems needed fixing.

According to a study titled “Perspectives on the Development of Low-Cost Airlines in Southeast Asia” by Juliana Kim and Tom Baum at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, the low-cost carriers cut their expenses to the bone. Kim and Baum cite the case of AirAsia, undeniably the most successful of Southeast Asia’s low-cost carriers, which is now operating 50 aircraft on a variety of domestic and international routes and has orders in with Airbus for another 150 planes. Tony Fernandes, the Chief Executive Officer of AirAsia and a Virgin Airlines alumnus, has cabin crews cleaning out the planes after they land.

Air Asia turns planes around in 22 minutes at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, keeping them in the air 10 hours per day. AirAsia, according to Kim and Baum, gets 180 landings out of a set of tires compared with 80 for conventional airlines. Pilots are taught to burn 770 US gallons of fuel per hour, compared with Malaysia’s flag carrier, MAS, which burns 1,100 gallons per hour in similar planes. That gives AirAsia the lowest costs per average seat per kilometer in the world, the two write.

It can also mean – and AirAsia as the region’s premier low-budget carrier is not regarded as guilty of such misuses – that in order to cut costs, pilots will attempt to land under considerably lower tolerances. The One-Two-Go crash at Phuket occurred in rain and wind so heavy that trees were bending over, eyewitnesses said. The plane received permission to abort the landing at the last minute, but dropped from the sky and split into two as it smashed into trees and a wall before bursting into flames, news reports said.