Pakistan Plane Crash: Was the Budget Airline to Blame?

Another horrifying plane crash in Pakistan has killed 152 people. Aviation expert Clive Irving on why the demand for cheap air travel has created a new threat in the sky.

What is becoming worryingly familiar about a rash of air crashes this year is the unfamiliarity of the airline names:

May 12: An Airbus A330 of Afriqiyah Airways inexplicably crashed in fine weather on its final approach to Tripoli International Airport, Libya. 103 passengers and crew died.

May 23: A Boeing 737 of Air India Express overshot the runway at Mangalore, careened over a cliff, and exploded. 158 passengers and crew died.

July 28: An Airbus A321 of Airblue crashed while attempting a landing in poor visibility at Islamabad, Pakistan. 152 passengers and crew are dead.

This latest disaster in Pakistan has characteristics that used to be common to many crashes: extremely poor visibility, caused by fog, on final approach; instructions from the air-traffic controllers to abort an approach and make several circuits before attempting another, and then “loss of contact.”

This has been a decade of explosive growth as the demand for cheap air travel has boomed around the globe.

But much of the effort over the past decades to make flying safer has been targeted at just those conditions. The combination of highly sophisticated instruments in the cockpits of modern jets and equally sophisticated ground-based navigation aids has virtually eliminated the risk of what were called “controlled flight into terrain” accidents.

All three of the airplanes in these three crashes are state-of-the-art, delivered in the last decade. Mechanical or technical failure is highly unlikely. However, all these airlines are very young, with slender track records.

The Libyan-owned Afriqiyah Airways was founded in 2001; Air India Express, the budget offshoot of Air India, was founded in 2004, as was Airblue in Pakistan.

They are harbingers of a sea change in the airline industry. This has been a decade of explosive growth as the demand for cheap air travel has boomed around the globe. Entrepreneurs in those parts of the world where demand had for years far exceeded supply spotted that there was a striking new business model in commercial aviation: the budget airline.

Pioneered first by Southwest in the U.S., then accelerated in Europe by two runaway successes, Ryanair and Easyjet, the budget model has now caught on big-time in Asia. Essential to that model are the two bestselling airplanes in the world: the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320.

At last week’s big international air show at Farnborough, England, the plane makers were licking their chops at the prospect of the sales in Asia, which Airbus and Boeing see as the world’s biggest airplane market. In the next 20 years, they say, that market alone could generate orders worth more than $1 trillion.

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Another number is striking: In 2001, budget carriers in Asia flew to 48 airports. In 2009, they served 576 airports.

This year’s run of crashes should sound a very clear warning that you can’t have this kind of growth without ensuring that the infrastructure essential to safety is in place—the most modern navigation aids on the ground, air-traffic controllers trained to the highest standards, rigorous government oversight of the licensing of new airlines and the training of crews.

When it comes to the airlines themselves, there have been rising concerns about overworked and tired flight crews, a critical issue where the U.S. has itself been overly lax. If the profit-driven budget airline business has forced short cuts here at home, you can bet the same problem will show up around the world.

International regulators, particularly the International Civil Aviation Organization, need urgently to step in and press for far greater vigilance in the process of licensing and monitoring the wave of new carriers. We should remember when looking at those gleaming new jets sitting at the gate with their crowd-pleasing livery: It’s not just airplanes that have crashes, it’s airlines.

Clive Irving is senior consulting editor at Conde Nast Traveler, specializing in aviation. Find his blog, Clive Alive, at CliveAlive.Truth.Travel.