MYSTERY

03.22.15 10:45 AM ET

Why Are Asia’s Planes Crashing All Over the Place?

Everyone who has died flying commercial in the past year was flying aboard airlines from the East. Safety may not be able to keep up with demand.

The last place in the world where you would expect the government to announce the creation of a new airline would be Malaysia. After all, the state bankrolls Malaysia Airlines, stricken financially by the loss of Flight 370 and the destruction of Flight 17 over Ukraine.

But last week they unveiled a new carrier called flymojo—a name reflecting the informality of budget airlines rather than the pomp of a state flag carrier.

The reality is that they had little choice. Everybody in Asia wants to fly, and fly cheaply and frequently. The Malaysians’ only way to protect their domestic market was to copy the competition.

But across Asia this race to meet an unprecedented demand for air travel is seriously straining the oversight of airlines and the systems needed to ensure world-class safety. The numbers are worrying. In the last 12 months 492 people have died or gone missing, presumed dead, flying in Asia on Asian airlines. That’s significantly more fatalities than the world totals for 2011 (372), 2012 (388), and 2013 (173).

To be sure, it’s become almost obligatory when looking at air crash statistics to point out how safe flying really is: The odds of dying in an air crash have been estimated at 1 in 11 million, against 1 in 3.1 million in a shark attack, and 1 in 5,000 in a car crash.

But the Asian numbers have a specific story to tell that makes the larger picture irrelevant.

The total of 492 fatalities comes from just four crashes: 239 people lost on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370; 162 fatalities on Air Asia Flight 8501, which crashed into the Java Sea; and 91 in two crashes involving the Taiwanese commuter airline TransAsia.

Such a high toll in so few crashes is unusual because one of the most striking advances in airplane safety has been the survivability rate in crashes—often well over 50 percent of the passengers. For example, when an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 made a violent crash-landing at San Francisco in 2013, of the 291 passengers only three died and the cabin was successfully evacuated before the airplane was gutted by fire.

Yet in the four recent Asian crashes there were no survivors in the two most serious crashes, 405 people in total, and a very low survival rate in the remaining two crashes.

There are other unusual factors. In the case of AirAsia Flight 8501 something went wrong at cruise altitude—and fatal accidents very rarely happen in cruise (statistically the average is 9 percent) and the largest loss of life, on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, also involved so far unexplained events at cruise height.  

The two TransAsia crashes involved the same type of airplane, turboprop ATR-72s, and in far more familiar circumstances, one during descent and landing (57 percent of accidents) and the other immediately after takeoff (24 percent of accidents).

It remains up to investigators to finally determine the cause of each of these crashes, and each will have its own distinct characteristics. However, there is such a striking geographical concentration here that it raises an increasingly urgent question: Are the crashes just an unlucky statistical spike or symptomatic of something serious that is being unheeded? More specifically, is the air safety regime in the Asia-Pacific region equal to the demands being made of it?

First, it’s important to understand that air crashes cannot be looked at in isolation. They most always reflect the quality of the infrastructure supporting air travel in the region where they occur.

Each year the body overseeing world aviation, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), conducts an audit of the performance of regional aviation infrastructure. This covers eight categories that are fundamental to safety: legislation, organization, licensing, operations, airworthiness, accident investigation, air navigation (air traffic control), and airports.

The system supporting commercial air travel in North America has a score of 93 percent. The worst performer is Africa, with 41 percent (Africa has by far the largest number of airlines on the European Union’s blacklist of airlines banned from flying into Europe). Asia scores 68 percent, which is a lot better, but there is a huge difference in the demand for air travel in Africa and Asia.

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In Asia the explosive growth of budget airlines is being driven by a vast emergent middle class—in Indonesia alone the number of airline passengers is predicted to grow from the current 85 million to 270 million by 2034, and 42 percent of worldwide deliveries of new airplanes in 2014 went to the Asia-Pacific region.

And we are now able to see that new airplanes can be delivered far faster than a mature regime for the management and safety of air travel can be. The oversight of aviation in Asian nations varies widely in quality. One of the most pressing problems is the availability of adequately experienced pilots.

There are growing concerns about a worldwide shortage of pilots, but the situation has become acute in Asia. It is estimated that by 2033 the region will need a mind-boggling 216,000 more pilots, an increase of 41 percent.

And the standards of pilot proficiency required in Asia are much lower than in the U.S. If your ambition is to qualify to take the right seat in the cockpit of an airliner in the U.S., to become a first officer (co-pilot), you need a four-year degree from an aviation college and at least 1,000 hours of flying time (college fees are a minimum of $50,000 a year). In Asia a rookie pilot can take that seat with only 300 to 400 hours of flight time (and the airline usually pays the tuition) and they can expect to become a captain in far less than the 15 years it typically takes in the U.S.

The range of pay a pilot can expect also varies enormously. In the U.S. a rookie first officer on a commuter airline can make as little as $20,000 a year, whereas airlines in China are willing to pay experienced captains from Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand as much as $290,000 a year, plus sweetheart benefits.

As a result of the demand, Asian airliners are often flown by a combination of local and expatriate pilots. For example, AirAsia Flight 8501 was being flown by an Indonesian captain with the single name of Iryanto, and his first officer Remi Emmanuel Plesel, a French national. Iryanto had more than 20,500 flying hours and Plesel 6,000. (As is usual, Plesel had command of the airplane during cruise.)

Disparities in age and experience on a flight deck can be dangerous. For example, in the case of a 2013 crash of an Indonesian budget carrier, Lion Air, on its landing approach to Bali, the very experienced 48-year-old Indonesian captain had handed over control to his very inexperienced 24-year-old Indian copilot. The airplane ditched in shallow water, and there were no deaths, but both pilots were later fired by the airline.

The two TransAsia crashes raise questions about how pilots handled situations in which a high level of flying skills is called for. The first occurred last July as the ATR-72 was making a second approach to land at the Penghu Islands in poor weather, although the Taiwanese authorities said the conditions were within an acceptable level for safe operations.

This February the second TransAsia crash—spectacularly recorded on a dashcam—involved an ATR-72 that lost engine power soon after takeoff from Taipei. It seems likely that instead of shutting down a failing engine the pilots shut down the other engine that was still delivering power—a scenario that has been seen before in crashes and which specific pilot training is designed to avoid.

What has become clear is that the Asian air travel boom is unique in the way that it is combining a new generation of pilots with the latest generation of airplanes that have more cockpit automation than any previous generation. The consequences of this are significant—and not sufficiently examined.

It is indisputable that automation has made flying far safer. Proximity warning systems have virtually eliminated what was once the most frequent cause of accidents, pilots flying unawares into terrain. Vastly improved navigation aids have also substantially mitigated the dangers of bad weather.

As a result of these advances, the way an airplane is flown has fundamentally changed. Continual demands on the pilot’s attention have given way to long periods when a pilot is required to take no physical action at all. In fact, physical skills are called upon very little—pilots are, for most of the time, managing and monitoring fully automatic flight controls. Situational acuity and vigilance come into play during the first and final half-hour or so of a flight, and this where pilot proficiency really counts.

It’s no good lamenting the passing of the glory days of the ace pilots with seat-of-the-pants reflexes honed in years of flying jets where there were no glass screens in the cockpit displaying the airplane’s vital signs and three-dimensional graphics of a runway ahead. The dependency on visceral senses is over.

Most of the talk among experts in pilot proficiency is about what has emerged as the last remaining salient cause of crashes, defined as “loss of control.” This describes incidents that require a pilot’s total engagement and airmanship, most often in incidents like the TransAsia crash at the Penghu Islands where because of poor visibility a pilot misses the runway on a first approach and “goes round” again and still fails to land safely. (That 2013 crash in San Francisco, by the way, was caused by confusion among the South Korean pilots during an approach in perfect weather.)

Although the investigators have not spoken yet, it is highly probable that three of the four serious recent Asian crashes qualify as loss of control—AirAsia Flight 8501 seems to have entered a high-altitude aerodynamic stall, and the second Taiwan TransAsia crash involved the crew’s handling of the engine failure. (Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, of course, remains unclassifiable as the greatest riddle in aviation history.)

The severity of these crashes must, at the very least, serve as a red flag. They refute any idea that air travel has become a seamless and uniformly safe system no matter where in the world we fly—and they should remind us that those new fleets of jets with jazzy livery and chic flight attendants can conceal serious systemic shortcomings in the oversight of airlines, the management of airspace—and the training of pilots.

Nonetheless, it has to be realized that underlying the problem is an unstoppable phenomenon. For many millions of people living in Asia air travel has become instantly transformative in a way that we in the West never experienced.

Craig Jenks, president of the company Airline/Aircraft Projects and a leading authority on Asian commercial aviation, drew this picture vividly for me: “These places have skipped the 19th-century infrastructure of trains, bridges, tunnels and highways and went from rickshaws, buses and ferries straight to airlines, missing a whole phase of surface connections that they don’t now need.”

In Southeast Asia’s four largest markets for domestic air travel, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand, budget airlines now account for more than half of the business. That’s why the Malaysian government had to step up their game with flymojo, which will avoid the top-heavy payroll of a legacy airline like Malaysia Airlines and kick off with a fleet of 20 jets, Bombardier CS100s made in Canada that have the most advanced version of automated flight decks and high fuel efficiency—so new, in fact, that they are still being flight-tested before receiving certification.

The easy movement of people and goods is an essential lubricant of any growing economy. Asia has the opportunity to build in little more than a decade a low-cost air travel model that it took the U.S. and Europe 40 years to realize—and we had the advantage of an already mature aviation infrastructure in place with a rigorous safety regime.

Indeed, the whole world wants to share one of the 20th century’s greatest advances: the creation of a remarkably safe international airline system. And why not? The more people get to experience other lands, other peoples, other cultures, the more the insulating barriers of nationality and culture are broken down.

But with this extraordinary transformation of expectations comes a serious responsibility: to meet that benchmark standard in the ICAO’s audit of each region’s aviation industry. So far Asia is falling far too short of that challenge.