It’s taken me a couple of weeks to get onto this topic, but given I’m using low-cost airlines to get around Asia again, I’m feeling both grateful for them - as well as having concerns about their future.
It’s my impression that Air Asia in particular is getting to that stage of its life - not a mid-life crisis - but that phase where everyone knows what they are doing, but are going through the motions.
Often the magic would extend to the passengers too - many of them on an aircraft for the first time, and delighted to be there. You can’t help feel charmed to see people applauding the pilot for a successful landing.
The emerging middle classes are a terrific marketplace and they’re being enabled to fly for the first time.
For fifty US dollars you can fly from Malaysia to Western Australia - six hours and four thousand kilometres (2,500 miles) away.
Whenever I’ve been on the line to Tony Fernandes, the owner of Air Asia, he has been genial but modest - not at all smug about the fact that he bought a failing airline and two aeroplanes in 2001, for about 50 cents, and has turned it into a multi-national group with nearly 200 ‘planes.
Talking to old friends, Tony has stressed the importance of “walking the floor”, knowing his business from bottom up. But how can you do that so effectively, at the scale it has become now?
He’s spoken of the need for “culture, focus and discipline”. There’s good reason to suppose that, at this point in its life, Air Asia is stumbling on those.
And with tragic consequences.
It was a faulty rudder control device which was a major cause of the crash which befell QZ8501 this time a year ago. A fault reported 23 times in the 12 months before.
That lack of attention to detail looks like an organisation with some staff who are sleepwalking through their roles, hoping for the best. And a group which has grown faster than its managers’ ability to monitor matters. 162 people may have died as a result of this.
The reaction of the pilots of QZ8501 to this emergency was instructive too.
It’s thought they experimented with a fix, which inadvertently switched off the autopilot, which startled the co-pilot, whose senior colleague did not then take over.
Do we see, here, the consequences of a generation of many more pilots in the air, less experienced because their aircraft largely fly themselves these days? There’s not so much to do between assisted take-off, automatic cruising, and assisted landing… …Less is being learned in flight.
The explosion in traveller numbers is testing the ability of the watchdogs too. I’ve been amazed at the number of airlines which I’ve used which simply didn’t exist a decade ago.
And perhaps the strain is beginning to show. America’s Federal Aviation Authority downgraded the assessment of its peer, the Thai Department of Civil Aviation this month. It’ll mean no new slots for local airlines flying from Thailand to the US until the Thais up their game.
Especially as the alternative is so unattractive…
The aggressive Malaysian coach drivers bullying other road users out of their way, and into the ditch; The Thai minibus drivers who are happy to cram an extra four enormous Dutch backpackers onto your knees for the ten-hour journey; The fatalistic Indonesian drivers who are happy to stare into the eyes of the oil tanker driver coming in the other direction, trusting to his squealing tyres to pull you out of the path in time.
What airline travel here offers you, apart from a huge saving of time, is a controlled environment for the duration of the journey, and a system of rules that have to be obeyed, because they are international rules.
It’s a question of making sure the airlines really do hold to those rules.