Cheap Flights Are Booming In Asia. Can Airports Keep Up?


Johan Farid Khairuddin steps aboard the Airbus A330 and looks for his seat. It’s fairly easy to find. His place, as detailed in his Twitter profile, is “Seat 0B. Soon 0A.” Khairuddin is being coy — he’s the co-pilot of the plane, and today he’s helping the pilot in Seat 0A fly some 350 passengers from Melbourne, Australia, back home to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It’s an eight-hour trip along one of almost 200 routes offered by AirAsia, a Malaysia-based low-cost carrier (LCC). “Times have really changed,” says Khairuddin, 37, who started working in 2012 with AirAsia X, a sister company. “Even in the 1990s, you had to be very privileged to fly. Now sometimes it’s cheaper to fly than to take the bus. It’s all about volume, really.”

The slogan on the side of the A330 sums it up: Now Everyone Can Fly. And as air travel booms across the Asia-Pacific region, Khairuddin may find himself shifting to Seat 0A faster than he thinks. Led by the explosion of LCCs — Indonesia’s Lion Air, Australia’s Jetstar, Singapore’s Tigerair and the Philippines’ Cebu Pacific, to name but a few — millions of working-class Asians suddenly find flying affordable. Some experts warn, however, that the boom is straining all aspects of the region’s aviation infrastructure, from airports bulging at the seams with passengers to air traffic controllers trying to keep track — and keep apart — all that metal crowding the Asian skies. The promise that “Now Everyone Can Fly,” it seems, comes with a fair bit of baggage.

And, according to industry projections, the congestion is only going to get worse. Data from the U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) says passenger air traffic in the Asia-Pacific region grew by 66 percent from 2010 to 2015, and in 2016 topped 1.3 billion — more than Europe, the Middle East and Africa combined. Altogether, the region now comprises some 35.4 percent of the world’s air traffic, which is more than any other single designated area.

In a 2016 forecast, the International Air Transport Association projects that the region will generate more than half the globe’s new passengers over the next 20 years. Around 2024, IATA says, China will displace the U.S. as the world’s largest aviation market; India will bump the U.K. for third place around 2025, and Indonesia will elbow Italy out of the top 10. During an April 2016 regional airports conference, Arun Mishra, the Asia-Pacific regional director of the ICAO, stated that 200 new airports are on drawing boards in China and India alone.

All that in an area without a regional civil aviation commission. In the years following World War II, ICAO set up regional bodies in Europe (1955), Africa (1969), Latin America (1975) and the Arab states (1996), which functioned in tight integration with mature existing national systems like the Federal Aviation Administration in the U.S. These regional commissions are crucial to establishing and maintaining safety and security standards to international specifications, including accreditation for maintenance workers, pilots and air traffic controllers.

What’s holding back the Asia-Pacific region? For starters, this vast and diverse airspace sweeps from the Stans, India and China, southeast to New Zealand and embraces 50 flight information regions. Some countries manage modern aviation systems while others have starter-kit operations that don’t yet meet international specs. Then there are the disparities in language, political systems and approaches to the economic regulation of air transport.

Professor Alan Tan, an aviation expert from the National University of Singapore, stresses the need for a common technical regulator similar to the FAA or the European Aviation Safety Agency. “Standards need not be uniform but harmonized to a sufficient degree to allow cross-border enforcement cooperation in line with international requirements,” he says, citing pilot-training standards and aircraft inspections in particular. Tan notes the “huge variance in technical capacity among the ASEAN states. … Hence, pilot-school licenses issued by, say, Cambodia or Myanmar will not be easily recognized by the other states until there is confidence in the quality of their training.”

The issue of capacity, however, remains key as the aviation infrastructure struggles to meet soaring demand. After growth estimates were reassessed, the 2016 budget for expansion to Bangkok’s Don Mueang airport had to be quadrupled. According to Tan, it’s a problem throughout the region. “Major airports in Jakarta, Manila and Bangkok have now exceeded their intended capacity,” he says. “This has created increasing congestion, insufficient slots and longer delays.”

But it’s the safety issues that obviously concern experts most. According to the 2016 ICAO Annual Safety Report, accidents in the Asia-Pacific region have actually trended downward in recent years. However, at the end of 2015, the FAA downgraded Thailand to a category 2 in 2014 because the country didn’t meet minimum international safety standards. The ruling forbids Thai carriers from opening new U.S. routes or expanding existing ones, and subjects the country’s fleet to additional inspections at U.S. airports. The other Asia-Pacific country in the category 2 doghouse is Bangladesh.

“There is indeed a strain in terms of infrastructure trying to catch up with the boom in regional aviation led by the LCCs,” Tan says. “There is definitely a need for greater investment, not just in physical infrastructure such as airports and terminals, but human capital as well in the form of pilots and maintenance personnel.”

Without such an investment, experts worry that an overextended, stressed air infrastructure could slow economic development and eventually produce the wrong kind of growth — one in air fatalities.

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