News that debris was found after an Indonesia AirAsia flight went missing over the weekend marked the third major incident involving Southeast Asian airlines this year.
In March, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 went missing after it mysteriously deviated from its scheduled flight path from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The plane is believed to have been lost over the southern Indian Ocean near Australia, yet no wreckage has been found.
Then, in July, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine — possibly by pro-Russian separatists, although Russia suggested that Ukraine was in some way responsible.
So, are passengers traveling in Southeast Asia rattled?
The latest incident has certainly fanned concern that travelers might lose confidence in regional airlines altogether, particularly Malaysian carriers. Yet although Flight QZ8501 was an AirAsia flight, it was operated by Indonesia AirAsia, which is not a Malaysian airline and is instead majority-owned by Indonesian interests. (The AirAsia group has similar minority holdings in subsidiaries in Thailand, the Philippines, India, and, soon, Japan, although these subsidiary airlines use the AirAsia brand).
Yet while travelers will likely be somewhat unsettled by this year’s developments, AirAsia will probably weather this difficult period. After all, the group pioneered the low-cost model in Asia, and has built a strong reputation for affordable and safe flying. Until the QZ8501 incident, more than 200 million passengers had flown on the AirAsia network, including its long-haul arm AirAsia X, with no plane having been lost.
Led by its formidable founder and CEO Tony Fernandes, the airline has built a reputation as the champion of the average passenger in the face of more expensive full-service carriers.
In the process, the airline has won the loyalty and gratitude of millions of working-class Asians for whom flying has become an affordable reality. It is therefore unlikely that recent unfortunate incidents will be able to change this.
What about rivals swooping in to pick up the business? The reality is that there is no pan-Asian low-cost competitor with operations on the scale of AirAsia’s. Indeed, because of restrictions in most countries in the region that prohibit foreigners from holding majority stakes in local airlines, AirAsia has had to improvise by establishing minority-owned subsidiaries all over Asia. And, although these are technically separate airlines, their common branding and Internet booking platform ensures that there is only one AirAsia in most passengers’ minds.
That said, the way AirAsia manages the crisis will also be critical in determining its future.
So far, the consensus seems to be that Fernandes is faring pretty well by being open, forthright and consistent with the families and media. However, much will ultimately depend on what actually happened to Flight QZ8501.
If it is determined to have been a weather-related accident, as has been widely suggested, the traveling public is likely to see this as a one-off event that can eventually be overlooked. It will only be if the airline itself is found to be somehow at fault — or perhaps if the cause of the incident remains unexplained — that there may be some lingering concerns among passengers.
All this said, air transport is undergoing phenomenal growth in Asia, with the region poised to overtake North America as the world’s largest and most dynamic aviation market. This suggests that the three, likely unrelated, incidents this year should not warrant sweeping generalizations or suggestions that airlines in the region have somehow become less safe than airlines elsewhere.
Of course, such incidents should still serve to remind airlines and governments everywhere that safety is of paramount importance, and that the explosive growth of air travel must also be accompanied by stringent safety and security standards. But for now, passengers in Southeast Asia are savvy enough to understand the difference between a trend and tragic but isolated accidents.
Alan Khee-Jin Tan is professor of aviation law at the National University of Singapore and a leading commentator on airline regulatory issues in Asia. The views expressed are the writer’s own.