Q&A: How safe are Asia's budget airlines?

Al Jazeera talks to an Indonesian aviation consultant about Southeast Asia's airline industry and safety concerns.

    The skies of Southeast Asia have never been busier.

    The region's budget airlines have been booming in recent decades, giving more people the chance to fly than ever before.

    But is safety being sacrificed in the pursuit of profits?

    There have been a number of fatal accidents in the region, and as this 101 East documentary reveals, there are fears some airlines are taking dangerous, potentially life-threatening risks.

    Al Jazeera speaks to Gerry Soejatman, an Indonesian aviation consultant, to find out whether you should think twice before booking that cheap air fare.

    Al Jazeera: How would you describe the safety record of Asia's budget airlines?

    Gerry Soejatman: The concern is not primarily with the airlines but with their regulators. Are they able to keep up with the growth of the airlines? The airlines themselves have constraints to deal with when it comes to safety, such as insurance rates, which make it an economic necessity to be safe.

    The accident rate of Southeast Asian carriers has been improving over the past decade. If we look at the rate of accidents per one million passengers, it has dropped. Indonesian carriers used to contribute 10 to 25 percent of the world's annual fatal accidents, but the rate of accidents has dropped by an astonishing amount. Most of this is largely due to that economic necessity to be safe.

    Airlines that don't care about safety will be left behind by the market as passengers seek security, and they vote with their wallets. Case in point was the saga of Adam Air, which was famous for their explosive growth accompanied by its legendary bad safety, so much so, that in the end passengers dumped them to fly other airlines who were equally cheap, but were safer.

    The days of cutting corners to maintain profitability are gone. The airlines have moved on and learned. The risks are there still, but the concern now lies with the regulators.

    READ MORE: Timeline - Major air disasters

    Al Jazeera: What needs to be done to improve airline safety in Southeast Asia?

    Soejatman: Regulators need to step up their game. A significant part of the problem is with the regulators. These problems range from not enforcing their rules, to pure and simple incompetence.

    Some regulators are frustrated, too, to the extent that they start blaming the airline despite the airlines having ban exemptions and/or have internationally recognised safety quality assurance audits passes. In Indonesia, we even had the regulators blaming dead pilots for accidents, even before the aircraft was found. Knee-jerk reactions do not help, either, and some of those reactions simply show that the regulators either don't understand, or simply don't know what they're doing.

    Al Jazeera: Are you concerned that safety is being sacrificed in the pursuit of passengers?

    Soejatman: No. Airlines have moved on and realised that being safe is an economic necessity. Airlines now race to get internationally recognised safety assurance audits. Safety audits are now conducted regularly by the regulators of foreign countries the airlines visit, and if they find deficiencies, routes can be immediately shut down owing to safety concerns.

     Inside Story - Are airlines keeping us safe?

    While the period of 10 years ago and before saw the airlines being the ones cutting corners, today the picture is that of the regulators trying to catch up.

    Many people misunderstand the European Union ban as the airlines being banned because they are unsafe. In reality, the airlines are banned because the EU deems them inadequately supervised and lacking evidence that they comply with their home country's and international safety regulations.

    Airlines can apply for the EU ban exemption, where they have to show their compliance to local safety regulations and have a level of safety that the EU is happy with.

    In Indonesia, Garuda, Citilink, AirAsia, Batik Air and Lion Air have been awarded the ban exemption.

    One must also remember, safety quality assurance is not absolute safety assurance. Accidents will continue to happen if flights continue, but the difference is in the rates of accidents.

    Al Jazeera: How has Southeast Asia's airline industry grown in recent years?

    Soejatman: The days of massive growth are over. Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines have had explosive growth.

    On average these countries doubled their numbers 10 years ago. But we see a slowdown in growth since 2014. Consolidation is the name of the game now. Various challenges, such as infrastructure capacity, are also constraining short-term growth potential.

    READ MORE: Debris 'almost certainly' from Malaysian Airlines MH370

    Al Jazeera: What are some of the most troubling examples of airlines cutting corners that you have heard about?

    Soejatman: In the case of past airlines that have ignored safety or not taken safety seriously:
    One airline had its aircraft wheel brakes serviced at a roadside car repair shop, which did not possess the necessary approvals or qualifications to perform the work.

    One airline had a maintenance manager with no aircraft maintenance or airline business background. He was from a car maintenance business.

    Another airline has had multiple problems with its navigation system. Their solution was not to send the items to a repair shop, but to pull the unit out, clean the contact points, spray it with some lubricants, then reinstall the units, ground-test the units, send the aircraft back into service without solving the problem, and then accuse the pilots of being a bunch of whiners.

    I'm glad to say that both of the above-mentioned airlines are now out of business.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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