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After the AirAsia Disaster, Industry Experts Say It’s Time to Overhaul Air Safety Standards

Analysts and reports suggest the recent incidents involving Southeast Asian air carriers are perhaps indicative of broader issues facing commercial air travel worldwide.

by Colleen Curry
Dec 30 2014, 11:18pm

Photo by Edgar Su/Reuters

The recent crash of AirAsia Flight QZ8501 — along with the two other high-profile incidents earlier this year involving Malaysia Airlines flights MH17 and MH370  — has led to increased scrutiny of the safety standards of Southeast Asia's aviation industry, but some experts believe the disasters are perhaps indicative of broader issues facing commercial air travel worldwide.

Analysts and reports suggest industry safety regulations, infrastructure, and personnel are struggling to keep up with the rapid growth of the airline industry in developing markets.

More than 73 percent of air traffic in 1993 was carried by airlines in Europe and North America, according to Boeing, but that number is predicated to shrink to 38 percent by 2033. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicts that China will overtake the US as the world's largest air passenger market by 2030, with India, Indonesia, and Brazil rounding out the top five fastest-growing markets. Africa is also expected to see its own boom in demand for air travel by the mid 2030s, according to the IATA.

Robert W. Mann, an industry analyst and former airline executive, told VICE News that Asia's enormous population has discretionary disposable income available to spend on flights for the first time in history. Latin America, he said, has been growing in fits and starts, and the arrival of low-cost carriers such as Jet Blue's Azul Brazilian Airlines has sparked growth.

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The Middle East, Mann said, is unique because it is a "purely hub-based phenomenon," meaning major Gulf carriers offer cheap fares to destinations around the globe, then act as hubs through which the traffic is routed. Emirates Airline, for example, is the biggest carrier in Australia — larger than Quantas — because it offers frequent flights on huge planes, Mann said.

"For lack of a better term, they're stealing traffic and routing it through their hubs and then onto somewhere else," Mann said.

Murdo Morrison, editor of Flight International magazine, told VICE News that industry growth in North America and the Middle East is minimal because the markets are fully mature in comparison to Asia, especially China.

"If you look at the emerging markets, particularly in Asia, the growth and potential growth is huge," Morrison said. "In China, fewer than 1 percent of citizens have ever been on a plane. I'm guessing in America it'd be way, way over 50 percent and probably much higher, so you've got massive growth potential."

To meet the growing demand, airlines will have to hire and train new pilots and technicians. Airlines in China, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America will be rushing to hire hundreds of crewmembers to staff new routes around the world.

"In a lot of these markets you have a shortage of trained and experienced pilots," Morrison said. "Quite often, the problem is the airline industry is expanding so fast it's absorbing its own home supply, so what they have to do is recruit expat pilots, Americans, Europeans, Canadians, and Australians."

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Mann explained that countries that lack training facilities for pilots, mechanics, and dispatchers must send applicants elsewhere for certification, or hire expats. When expat pilots are offered more lucrative jobs in China or the Middle East, he said, it strains the US pilot pool.

"It can be quite lucrative for pilots to go fly in the Middle East or China, which can lead to an experience drain in North America, and a pilot shortage on regional airlines," Mann said.

In Boeing's long-term market outlook report, the company said the Asia and Pacific region has the highest overall demand for pilots and trained technicians. Over the next 20 years, some 216,000 new pilots and 224,000 technicians will be needed to staff the region's growing fleet of jetliners. North America, by comparison, will need only 88,000 new pilots and 109,000 new technicians.

The expected market shift will also put greater demand on Boeing and Airbus to manufacture more planes. LionAir, a low-cost carrier based in Indonesia, has an outstanding order of 500 planes, Mann said, which will add to its current stable of 200 aircraft. New airports and terminals will have to be built to accommodate the growth, and new air traffic controllers will be needed to coordinate all the flights.

"In general there are problems with infrastructure in developing or maturing markets," Morrison said. "Everything we take for granted in Europe and North America — like the fact you have flight schools and a general aviation industry, and people who come through conventional channels into the airline industry, and airports with trained air traffic controllers — are things we take for granted."

Several countries in the Middle East and Asia have poured money into building new airports in recent years to try and accommodate the growth, Mann said, but the relevant regulatory oversight agencies haven't always kept pace.

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"Where I think there has been a lag is in the regulatory oversight agencies," Mann said, noting that the minimum international safety standards — set by the International Civil Aviation Organization — are too low. "To my mind, ICAO needs to pick up their game and raise the bar, and force everyone to meet a higher standard, and I hope that there's an attempt to do that."

The European Union and the United States, which have higher standards, have occasionally banned planes from Indonesia, the Philippines, Venezuela, and elsewhere because those countries lack the necessary safety oversight. The IATA's annual report also said emerging markets need to strengthen their air safety systems.

Both Mann and Morrison pointed out that AirAsia had high marks for safety before the accident Sunday, in which an Airbus A320-200 carrying 162 people disappeared over the Java Sea amid severe weather. Some wreckage has been recovered, along with three bodies.

The two experts agree that the countries and companies currently racing to serve passengers in emerging aviation markets must match their growth with new safety standards.

"I really think aviation safety oversight needs a tune-up, if not an overhaul," Mann said.

Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen

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