NEW YORK – Every week, a combined total of 28 new planes roll off the assembly lines at Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier and Embraer factories — the fastest production rate in the history of commercial aviation. Most of those aircraft feed the insatiable demand in Asia.
The rapid growth of Asian airlines is helping bolster economies and change lifestyles, but it's also creating a daunting safety challenge as more passengers head into an increasingly crowded airspace.
Much of the boom has been driven by the surge in popularity of Southeast Asia's budget carriers, such as AirAsia, whose Flight 8501 disappeared Sunday morning, 42 minutes after it took off from Surabaya, Indonesia, on its way to Singapore. It is still unclear what happened to the plane, but the aviation disaster has put a new spotlight on the obstacles that lie ahead for the booming region.
As Southeast Asia's economies grow, creating a burgeoning middle class, more people have the appetite to travel and airlines are struggling to ensure that their training and safety standards keep pace with the demand.
There are currently 1,600 aircraft operating in Southeast Asia, Brendan Sobie, analyst at the CAPA Centre for Aviation, a consultancy in Sydney, said by email. "It is the only region in the world with as many aircraft on order as in service," he said. "So the growth seems set to continue."
For each new plane, airlines need to hire and train at least 10 to 12 pilots, sometimes more, according to industry experts. The figure is so high because planes often fly throughout the day and night, seven days a week, while pilots need sleep and days off.
Right now, Asia-Pacific accounts for 31 percent of global air passenger traffic, according to the International Air Transport Association. Within two decades, that figure is forecast to jump to 42 percent, as Asia adds an extra 1.8 billion annual passengers for an overall market size of 2.9 billion.
Boeing projects that the Asia-Pacific region will need 216,000 new pilots in the next 20 years, the most of any part of the world, accounting for 40 percent of the global demand.
To put that in perspective, there are about 104,000 pilots currently working in the United States, flying everything from crop dusters to jumbo jets, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"The exponential growth in and the demand for air travel were not anticipated by many of the governments in the region," says Shukor Yusof, founder of the Malaysia-based aviation research firm Endau Analytics. "And so you're seeing a lack of infrastructure, airports and pilots because nobody expected low-cost travel would have taken off as quickly, as rapidly, and would be as lucrative as it is now."
Japan's Peach Aviation, which is partly owned by ANA Holdings, the parent of All Nippon Airways, said this spring it would cut up to 2,100 flights — about one-sixth of its planned schedule — that it expected to operate between April and October due to a pilot shortage.
The U.S. has many pilot-training facilities, from universities to specialized flying schools. And it has a farm system of regional carriers that train and churn out experienced pilots for the largest airlines. But Asia, home to fast-growing carriers such as AirAsia, Indonesia's Lion Air and India's Jet Airways, doesn't have enough training programs to produce all the pilots it needs, said David Greenberg, a former Delta Air Lines executive who also oversaw pilot training and safety at Korean Air.
"There is a global shortage, and this has brought pilot poaching," Greenberg said. Carriers in the Middle East and Asia have looked to the U.S., Canada, Australia and Europe to fill the gap.
Greenberg said that while he was at Korean, 10 percent of the carrier's captains were foreigners who came from 28 different countries.
Meanwhile, many pilots, engineers and technicians in Southeast Asia have been lured to more attractive jobs in the Middle East, which boast higher salaries and the opportunity to fly in sleek new aircraft.
"I personally know quite a number of people from Malaysia Airlines who have actually gone to the Middle East and I don't blame them because the money is very good," Yusof says. "If you compare Middle Eastern carriers to Southeast Asian carriers, they are more advanced, they are growing far quicker — it's all about dollars and cents and they have a bottomless pit of money."
Money — or lack thereof — is at the heart of much of the region's staffing shortages, says Lim Chee Meng, CEO of Mil-Com Aerospace Group, a Singapore-based aviation training company that provides training for many of the region's airlines.
Wages for pilots and technicians in Southeast Asia have not risen fast enough to compensate for the cost of training, which discourages people from wanting to pursue an aviation career in the first place, Lim says.
The dearth of trained staff means there are fewer workers to juggle an ever-growing workload — and that comes with risks.
"It can lead to cascading effects down the road that can contribute to safety issues," Lim says. "Which is a big problem."
That said, the aviation industry has generally done an amazing job of improving safety while doubling the number of passengers in the past 15 years.
Last year, 3.1 billion passengers flew, twice the total in 1999. Yet the chances of dying in a plane crash were much lower.
Since 2000, there were less than three fatalities per 10 million passengers, according to an Associated Press analysis of crash data provided by aviation consultancy Ascend. In the 1990s, there were nearly eight; during the 1980s there were 11; and the 1970s had 26 deaths per 10 million passengers.
That is not to say some parts of the world aren't more dangerous than others. The accident rate in Africa, for instance, is nearly five times that of the worldwide average, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization, part of the United Nations.
Indonesia has a particularly bumpy safety record.
In 2007, the safety standards there were so bad that the European Union prohibited all of Indonesia's airlines from flying into any of its member countries. That ban was lifted Aug. 17, 2009; however, Indonesia's main airline — quickly growing Lion Air — is still banned by the EU.
For many people, flying is the only option. Indonesia is a sprawling archipelago of 250 million people. To get from one island to another, the easiest way is by air. Throughout Asia, adequate highways or railroads don't always exist. So as the region's economy has grown, the number of people flying has, too.
And that growth is only going to continue. Indonesia's various airlines have 607 unfilled aircraft orders with Airbus and Boeing. Lion Air has the bulk of those, with 508 aircraft still on order.