The crash of AirAsia Flight 8501 is the third aviation disaster this year to strike a region where air traffic has grown spectacularly to become the world’s biggest market, posing new challenges to safety regulators, airlines and governments.
The Airbus A320, which vanished from radar early Sunday in storm clouds en route to Singapore from the Indonesian city of Surabaya, was discovered Tuesday in the waters off the island of Borneo.
With little information to go on, many experts say it is too early to know what caused the crash, though investigators suspect inclement weather played a role.
Over the past five years, the number of passengers carried annually in the Asia-Pacific region has jumped by two-thirds to more than one billion, surpassing Europe and North America and accounting for 33% of the global total in 2013.
But since 2010, Asian carriers have been involved in four of the five events with the most fatalities, according to the independent Aviation Safety Network. Recent events include a 2010 crash by an Air India Express plane that overran the runway in Mangalore, killing 158 people, and the still-unsolved disappearance in March of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which veered thousands of miles off course from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The list also includes the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in July, in territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists.
The concerns go beyond high-profile disasters. The Association of Asia Pacific Airlines, the leading regional trade group for 16 international carriers, said last month that while airlines continue to invest heavily in new, fuel-efficient planes, “there is increasing concern about the need for corresponding long-term investments in related aviation infrastructure, including airport terminals, runways and air-navigation services.”
The Kuala Lumpur-based group, while noting that its members are optimistic about long-term prospects, also said that “airlines are focused on tackling a number of major challenges” related to the Malaysia Airlines tragedies, including “procedures related to aircraft tracking and governing flights over conflict zones.”
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration seven years ago downgraded Indonesia’s air-safety oversight system, effectively barring Indonesian carriers from increasing flights to and from the U.S. European Union officials in 2007 placed all Indonesian carriers on a blacklist that blocked them from flying to the EU, though some bans were later lifted.
Asia isn’t alone in struggling with the challenges of fast growth in air travel. Latin America and Africa also have had a spate of deadly accidents over the past decade. Prior to this year, Asia’s share of accidents was roughly the same as its share of global scheduled commercial traffic world-wide, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization.
The flight boom in Asia also has brought many benefits. Much of the growth has come from low-cost carriers that sprang up in the past decade or so, attracting consumers who hadn’t previously been able to afford air travel. They include AirAsia Bhd., the Kuala Lumpur-based budget carrier with arms in Thailand, India, the Philippines and Indonesia, the operator of Flight 8501.
As airlines grow, they often start flying new aircraft models. Many safety experts say that rapid fleet expansion, combined with additional demands on training systems, are a source of potential safety problems. “Introducing new aircraft types into a fast-growing network amounts to a classic warning sign that safety margins might be eroding,” said John Cox, an industry consultant and former safety officer for the Air Line Pilots Association union in Washington.
Both Airbus Group NV and Boeing Co. , the leading builders of large jetliners, predict that Asia will continue to lead world air-travel growth. Airbus forecasts that half the new routes developed globally over the next two decades will connect with Asia, with 12% of the new routes being started within the region itself due to the growth of the budget carriers. Airbus expects the region’s fleet of 5,083 planes to reach 12,635 by 2033, with China being the largest market.
Boeing, in a report this year, said that to meet surging aviation demand, carriers in Asia will require 216,000 new pilots over the next 20 years, compared to 94,000 pilots in Europe and 88,000 in North America. Aviation consultants estimate Asia had about 50,000 pilots in 2012.