Race to the Top

03.13.14

Flight 370 Is Just the Start: Why Asia Isn't Getting Air Safety Right

It took the West 50 years to reach the level of air safety that Asia is trying to reach in 10. The difference can be deadly.

The dreadful dragging out of the search for Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370, and the agony this is causing to the distraught families of the missing passengers, is a warning of something larger than the tragedy itself. It should be a red flag, and one with consequences.

Flying is incredibly safe. It achieved that level through a 50-year learning curve. A lot of that learning came through understanding and correcting what made airplanes crash. The design of the airplanes, the way they were built, the way they were inspected and maintained, and the way that crashes were influenced by the human factor in the air and on the ground, always evolved under relentless pressure caused by the horror of accidents.

Commercial aviation’s growth initially came from the demand in North America and Europe. Then, with the introduction of wide-body jets in the 1970s, the economics of flying were radically altered, and the rest of the world wanted a seat. Indeed, airline travel swiftly passed from being a rare luxury to becoming an everyday utility. And all of this occurred as flying became safer and safer.

In parts of Asia, the infrastructure on which safe air travel depends lags well behind the levels achieved in the West.

Malaysian Airlines itself is one of the largest and most experienced in the region, with a good safety record. But an airline is always at the mercy of the culture—political and social—in which it operates.

The protocols for dealing with an air crash in Europe and North America are clear—there is always a clear line of authority, information is issued by seasoned sources and, most importantly, accident investigators never speculate and only release information when it is rock solid. We certainly don’t see generals bedecked with a chest full of ribbons (from what campaigns, exactly?) making statements, and then withdrawing them, as happened in Kuala Lumpur this week.

We are also seeing conflicts between the civilian and military control of air traffic radar. Military radar has different priorities; in this part of the world, it’s to oversee shipping, because of piracy and smuggling, as well as military and commercial flights. It’s also possible that the Malaysian military are not eager to reveal how good (or not) their radar surveillance is.

With the introduction of wide-body jets in the 1970s, the economics of flying were radically altered, and the rest of the world wanted a seat.

However, beyond the incoherence of the Malaysian handling of this emergency, are other concerns. Both Airbus and Boeing are pumping new single-aisle airliners—specifically, the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320—into the Asian markets as fast they can, delivering as many as 40 airplanes of each model a month, many of them bound for Asian budget carriers. At the same time, China is building new airports and expanding old ones at a pace impossible in the West.

There is not an inexhaustible supply of experienced pilots to operate these fleets. Last year, for example, a poorly trained young pilot of Indonesia’s Lion Air was making an approach in perfect weather to Bali’s international airport when he landed short of the runway and ditched into the sea. Only by a miracle did nobody die. Events like these are always precursors: they show imminent patterns.

OK, so why shouldn’t Asians enjoy the expedition and utility of air travel?  Indeed, because of geology and geography, some of these countries have never been able to develop either railway or highway connections, like Indonesia. Therefore, in one giant leap, Indonesians are embracing cheap domestic air travel that will transform their culture and economy.

And yet there are more than 50 Indonesian airlines on the European Union’s blacklist (PDF) for safety reasons, which means they are not allowed into European air space.  This kind of multiplication of small, poorly supervised carriers also shows up in the Philippines, where there are also many airlines banned by Europe.

In long-matured Asian aviation markets like Japan and Singapore, the safety records are exemplary and behind the airlines are air traffic control systems and maintenance regimes second to none. But those airlines fly into other Asian regions where the standards are nothing as rigorous.

Here is the problem. There is a growing disparity between the outward appearance of an airline—the brand new airplanes, the splashy decals and the smiling flight attendants—and the hidden background of poorly enforced regulations, sloppy maintenance and the scarcity of well-trained pilots—in a region where weather can often be a critical factor in safety.

And, unlike the West, Asia doesn’t have 50 years in which to come up to snuff.