Supply, Demand, and Aviation Disaster in Asia

The crash of AirAsia Flight QZ 8501, the year's third high-profile aviation incident involving an Asian carrier, highlights an emerging trend: the surge in Asian air travel.

On Tuesday, the family members of passengers on AirAsia Flight QZ 8501 learned of the fate of their loved ones in horrifying fashion: rolling Indonesian television footage of aerial searches for the missing plane produced the image of a dead passenger floating in the water, sending waves of grief through the crowd. News channels carrying the feed quickly apologized.

As the search for survivors begins, some clues as to what might have happened to the flight and its 162 passengers are emerging. “It wasn’t a controlled ditching,” a safety director at Ascend Worldwide Ltd., a London-based aviation consulting company, told Bloomberg. “That’s clear from the finding of bodies that don’t have life jackets on.”

At a press conference following the development, AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes issued a call against early speculation before making his own: “We have 1,000 flights a day and until we have the investigation we cannot make any assumptions as to what went wrong. All I can say is the weather in Southeast Asia is very bad at the moment."

Punctuating his point, as the news was breaking about the fate of QZ 8501, another AirAsia flight overshot a runway in the Philippines while landing in windy weather. The Philippines has been beset by flash floods and mudslides from a tropical storm, which, according to officials, has left 31 people dead. (There were no reported injuries among the 159 passengers.)

Nevertheless, the crash of AirAsia Flight QZ 8501, the year's third high-profile aviation incident involving an Asian carrier, highlights an emerging trend—the surge in Asian air travel. According to an AP report, the Asia-Pacific region has seen a growth in demand for planes and pilots that has dwarfed that of the rest of the world.

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.

The report adds that, according to Boeing projections, there will be a demand for "216,000 new pilots in the next 20 years" in the Asia-Pacific region, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the global share.

Despite the steady stream of tragic aviation news, 2014 was the safest year on record in terms of plane crashes. The more compelling statistic is the 3.1 billion passengers that flew in 2013. That's double the number of those traveling by air in 1999.

Part of what has enabled that growth has been an uptick in low-cost carriers entering the market, particularly in Asia. The rapid expansion, in addition to requiring new pilots and more infrastructure, has also rushed a production of airplanes to keep up with demand. That may have also created some problems.

“Introducing new aircraft types into a fast-growing network amounts to a classic warning sign that safety margins might be eroding,” John Cox, a former safety officer for the Air Line Pilots Association, told The Wall Street Journal.

Those safety margins, particularly in Indonesia, where the AirAsia flight took off on Sunday, are coming under scrutiny again. As Reuters reported, the country remains on the European Union's aviation blacklist over its regulation of airlines, a blanket ban that has been in place since 2007 with only a few exemptions. Around that time, the Federal Aviation Administration also refused to allow Indonesian airlines to increase their routes to the United States.

While Indonesia AirAsia has mostly enjoyed a blemish-free record, the saga of flight QZ 8501 could change perceptions. As Greg Waldron, an industry consultant, told Reuters: "This is the first incident for Indonesia AirAsia, but it will cast a spotlight once again on the entire industry."