Indonesian army personnel during a search and rescue operation for missing AirAsia flight QZ8501 over the Java Sea on Dec. 29.
(The original version of this story said that three Malaysia-based airlines had gone down this year. Two of the airlines were based in Malaysia; the third was an Indonesian affiliate of a Malaysia-based group. )
In the past year, Southeast Asia’s aviation industry has suffered an unprecedented number of tragedies. Although the odds of any person boarding a flight dying in a plane crash are about 1 in 11 million, three planes—two based in Malaysia, the third an Indonesian affiliate of a Malaysia-based group—have apparently gone down, with no survivors. The latest, AirAsia Flight QZ8501, had been traveling from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore when it vanished over the Java Sea.
To some extent, the three Malaysian air disasters are just brutal bad luck. Still, they point to several disturbing trends that raise the question of whether flying in peninsular Southeast Asia is completely safe. The air market in the region has embraced low-cost carriers, leading to a proliferation of flights throughout Southeast Asia, stretching air traffic controllers, and possibly allowing some airlines to expand too rapidly. Indonesian carriers, air traffic controllers, and Indonesian airspace in general have become notorious for weak safety regulations. AirAsia has responded to this crisis much more rapidly than state carrier Malaysian Airline(MAS:MK) did after the disappearance of Flight MH370 last March, but the opaque, authoritarian politics of Malaysia—which are common in Southeast Asia—will likely make the search and rescue operation, and any inquiry into why the flight crashed, more difficult than necessary.
AirAsia, modeled on carriers such as Ryanair (RYAAY:US) and Southwest Airlines, was the first low-cost airline to prosper in Southeast Asia, which had been dominated by state carriers until open-skies deals broke the market open in the past decade. AirAsia allowed the growing middle classes in Asia to use air travel for pleasure and business for the first time. The no-frills airline charged for food, bags of any significant size, choosing a specific seat, and many other services, but it also gained a reputation for solid customer service. In the wake of Flight QZ8501’s disappearance, AirAsia has continued to show its responsiveness. Through its website and emergency call centers, the airline has been providing families with up-to-the-minute and seemingly accurate information about the plane and the nascent search effort, a sharp contrast from Malaysia Airlines, which told families of passengers on MH370 virtually nothing for days after the plane vanished.
AirAsia has expanded rapidly in Indonesia, the most populous nation in Southeast Asia and an archipelago where cheap air travel is incredibly attractive to middle classes. Indonesia-based low-cost carrier Lion Air, meanwhile, placed a massive order in 2013 for 234 new Airbus planes and followed that up with an order last month for 40 more planes. Other low-cost carriers such as Citilink, Tigerair, Valuair, and many others have also built up their route networks across the archipelago.
But while air traffic has grown in the region, and while AirAsia had a mostly solid safety record, the increase in low-cost flights may have resulted in planes being operated by men and women with less experience than in the past. Southeast Asian airspace still has the same mountains, chaotic weather, and tough approach paths as it always did. The pilot on the AirAsia flight had about 6,000 hours of flight experience on the Airbus plane he was flying, but it is unclear whether he had experience flying at 34,000 feet or higher, where he was trying to take the plane to avoid bad weather. The higher the plane rises, the more difficult it can be to navigate tricky conditions such as thin air and ice crystals. Some low-cost carriers seem particularly strapped trying to find quality staff and allegedly push their pilots and crew to work too many hours in order to run so many flights. Indonesian carrier Lion Air has had at least three of its pilots arrested for crystal methamphetamine use since 2011; crystal meth is a stimulant that can be used to stay awake and alert.
This increase in flights seems to have particularly taxed air traffic controllers, pilots, and mechanics operating in Indonesia. The country has become infamous for poor management of planes in the air and coming in for landings, and for lax enforcement of airlines’ need to maintain planes. Pay for air traffic controllers, mechanics, and regulators of the aviation industry remains low by regional standards, and graft is endemic at all levels of regulatory agencies in Indonesia; the country ranks among the most corrupt in East Asia in Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index. Yet the increase in flights into and through the country has required more air traffic controllers, mechanics, and pilots, whether Indonesia is capable of providing trained people to fill these jobs.