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Last Updated: Sunday, 16 September 2007, 16:28 GMT 17:28 UK
High cost for cheap Asian flights?
By Jonathan Head
BBC South East Asia correspondent


With incomes rising fast in a region with a population of 500 million, increasing numbers of people want to travel, and dozens of new airlines have started up to meet the demand.

But the proliferation of new carriers has raised concerns about airline safety, after a number of recent crashes.

If you want to get an idea of how rapidly the budget airline business has taken off in Asia, consider the decision by the European Union earlier this year to ban all 51 Indonesian airlines from flying into European airports.

A decade ago, Indonesia had no more than a dozen.

There has been a similar expansion of airlines throughout the region.

It all started in Malaysia six years ago, when Tony Fernandes, an accountant who once worked for Richard Branson's Virgin Group, bought then bankrupt Air Asia and decided to re-build it as a low-cost carrier.

Tony Fernandes (L) with Sir Richard Branson
Tony Fernandes (L) emulated his former boss, Richard Branson (R)

He was convinced South East Asia was ready for the business model which had worked so well in Europe and the US.

He was right.

In that time Air Asia has become a phenomenal success, flying to nearly 50 destinations, and inspiring others to follow its example in neighbouring countries.

Singapore got Tiger Airlines, Valuair and Jetstar, Indonesia got Adam Air, Lion, Wings and a host of others, and Thailand got Nok Air, Thai Air Asia and One-Two-Go.

All these carriers use a similar business model - no-frills service and non-refundable booking on the internet.

They have been a boon for the millions of people in Asia who have a bit more money to spend on travel, but not enough for full-fare flights.

Safety record

But they have also raised some worrying safety issues.

Mandala Airlines flight A330 crashed moments after taking off from Medan, Indonesia en route to Jakarta one day ago Tuesday Sept. 6, 2005 in Medan
A Mandala Airlines plane crashed after take-off in Indonesia in 2005

The safety record of low-cost carriers in Europe and the US has so far been impressive, but less so in Asia.

A series of crashes in Indonesia over the past two years led to the ban on all its airlines flying to Europe.

Those accidents prompted doubts about safety procedures at Indonesian airports, pilot training and maintenance.

The Indonesian aviation authorities say they are now working hard to make safety inspections more rigorous.

A Thai low-cost carrier, Phuket Air, was also banned from flying to some European destinations in 2005, although that ban was lifted this year.

Aside from Air Asia and Tiger, fleets are often much older than their European and American counterparts.

A MD-82 airplane
MD82 planes, like the one which crashed in Phuket, are 25 years old

The aircraft involved in the Phuket crash, an MD82, was first manufactured in the early 1980s.

They are cheap to buy, but have proved very expensive to operate in recent years as oil prices have rocketed, because older aircraft are far less fuel efficient.

They also need a lot more maintenance.

The dramatic rise in the number of flights has also put pressure on South East Asia's airports, many of which are small and poor and have outdated landing facilities.

However, the airport at Phuket is comparatively large and modern, and not regarded as unusually difficult by pilots.

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