ON SEPT 16, a budget airline crashed in the Thai resort island of Phuket, killing 89 of the 130 people on board.
More than two months have passed but travellers are none the wiser about what caused the tragic fate of flight OG269, operated by Thai budget airline One-Two-Go.
The McDonnell Douglas MD-82 was about to land in rough weather when it hit the runway, skidded into an embankment and burst into flames.
Preliminary findings show that wind shear - a sudden change in wind speed or direction in an aircraft's flight path - may have caused the tragedy.
NO COMPROMISE ON SAFETY: ST Aerospace - one of the world's leading independent aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul companies - services Malaysia's AirAsia and Jetstar, among other low-cost carriers in Asia.
[ST Photo: Ashleigh Sim]
But pilot error has not been ruled out and neither has the age of the aircraft gone unnoticed - it was about 24 years old.
The incident again raised questions about the safety of low-cost carriers which have mushroomed across Asia in recent years.
Experts however say the Phuket tragedy is unlikely to clip the wings of the airlines that have revolutionised air travel with cheap fares since Malaysian pioneer AirAsia burst onto the scene in 2001.
The Asia-Pacific vice-president of airline consultancy Sabre Airlines Solutions, Mr Andrew Powell, said: "The market tends to be quite resilient to issues like this. Overall, demand isn't typically impacted although there may be shifts in demand from one carrier to another."
At an aviation conference in Singapore after the Phuket crash, Mr Peter Harbison, executive chairman of the Sydney-based aviation think-tank Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, said the region has very strong underlying prospects for budget travel.
About 20 low-cost carriers now criss-cross Asian skies - from India to China - and account for about 9 per cent of the region's short-haul passenger traffic.
Analysts expect their market share to multiply and perhaps outstrip the performance of budget airlines elsewhere.
In North America, where the first budget airline took off in 1971, three in 10 passenger trips today are on low-cost carriers. In Europe, the figure is about 15 per cent.
Based on announced aircraft orders, Mr Harbison sees low-cost carriers in Asia expanding their total seat capacity by over 250 per cent by 2012.
That works out to about 40-50 per cent growth a year for the next five years, he added.
In Singapore, Tiger Airways and Jetstar Asia have seen good growth since they took to the skies about three years ago.
A spokesman for Jetstar said passenger loads - the number of seats filled - are 30 per cent higher today than two years ago.
Meanwhile, Tiger - which expects to carry its four millionth passenger by year's end - now handles about half a million passengers every three months compared with 11 months when it first started flying.
More low-cost carriers are also coming here, connecting Changi Airport to 28 regional cities - compared to 20 in 2005.
The Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) says more than 13 per cent of all flights in and out of Changi are now operated by low-cost carriers, compared with 9.5 per cent two years ago.
But even as Asia's low-cost air travel industry continues to boom, a crash highlights the challenges faced by carriers and regulators struggling to cope with unprecedented demand and interest.
CRUCIAL FACTORS: Safety has less to do with whether it is a budget or full-service carrier, and more to do with how committed an airline is to safety, the quality of maintenance crew and how strict the local regulators are in ensuring standards. [ST Photo: Ashleigh Sim]
One is the perception that low-cost carriers can afford to offer rock-bottom deals because they cut corners, especially when it comes to safety.
Aviation experts as well as the airlines and the suppliers that work with these carriers, however, told The Straits Times this is baseless and untrue.
Singapore Technologies Aerospace - one of the world's leading independent aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul companies - services Malaysia's AirAsia and Jetstar, among other low-cost carriers in Asia.
The company stresses that when it comes to safety, there is no compromise.
ST Aerospace Deputy president (operations) and chief operating officer Ho Yuen Sang said: "When it comes to aircraft repair and maintenance, there is a framework set by the manufacturers that all airlines, whether low-cost or full-service, have to comply with."
ALL SYSTEMS GO: At ST Aerospace, under a Phase 10 check which takes about four days, extensive inspections are carried out on all aircraft systems - from hydraulics and pressurisation systems, to air-conditioning and flight controls.
[ST Photo: Ashleigh Sim]
How often the aircraft needs to be checked as well as what parts are to be replaced and when, are all stipulated by the plane makers.
Low-cost carriers typically work their planes harder, with more take-offs and landings compared with a full-service airline that flies long-haul routes.
"You could potentially do more maintenance on a low-cost carrier aircraft," said Mr Ho. "The basic principle is, if you use it more, you maintain it more."
The bottom line appears to be this: Safety has less to do with whether it is a budget or full-service carrier, and more to do with how committed an airline is to safety, the quality of people maintaining the planes and how strict the local regulators are in ensuring that standards set are met.
Mr Ho said: "People who say that budget carriers are not safe because they cut corners talk rubbish."
It is also wrong to assume that a plane is unsafe just because it is old.
He said: "If you maintain it well, a 10-year-old aircraft is as safe as a 20-year-old or a brand new aircraft. The difference is in the reliability. In an older aircraft, the systems are older, they fail faster and so, need to be maintained more often."
That safety is not tied to airline model is clear looking at past accident statistics.
According to the United States-based Aviation Safety Network, a non-profit entity that tracks and reports on aviation safety, 695 people have so far died in 26 fatal air accidents this year.
The 10-year average is 814 deaths and 30 fatal disasters.
Of the accidents so far this year, four - which accounted for 234 deaths - happened in Asia: two in Indonesia, one in Cambodia and the One-Two-Go crash in Phuket.
Indonesia's Adam Air crashed into the sea on New Year's day while a passenger jet belonging to flag-carrier Garuda burst into flames on landing in Yogyakarta on March 7.
Cambodia's PMT Air went down on June 25 during a domestic flight.
Many of the other tragedies happened in developing countries in Africa and South America that are grappling not only with a lack of funding but also a lack of expertise and information.
The non-profit International Society of Air Safety Investigators (ISASI), which held its 38th annual seminar in Singapore in August, sees the need for more sharing of expertise.
MS SOON LISHAN, 26
Photo: Courtesy of Soon Lishan
Airline: Tiger Airways
Fare: $180 return
Best thing about the flight: The free-seating policy, as I got to pick my seat because I was there early.
Worst thing: The delayed flight and lack of an explanation and service from the crew after that.
Will you fly budget again? Only for short-haul destinations around the region, as it?s too uncomfortable for long trips.
Its president Frank del Gandio said that the key to preventing aircraft disaster is exchange of information and expertise so that the industry can learn from accidents and come up with procedures and best practices to prevent them from happening again.
The society has organised 19 seminars for officials and other industry players in developing countries in the last six years.
Within Asia, Indonesia's dismal safety records led the European Union (EU) to decide in July to ban all Indonesian air carriers from entering European airspace on grounds of safety.
The fast-growing air travel market has also put pressure on airlines struggling to find enough pilots to fill the cockpits.
But here again, experts point out that while this may mean carriers now have to compete more aggressively - perhaps pay more and offer more perks - to attract and keep the best of the lot, this should not in itself compromise safety standards.
That's because there are internationally set standards that need to be met - a stipulated number of flying hours for example - and tests that need to be passed before someone can be given a pilot licence.
But surely experience counts, and established airlines that can afford to pay for experience are safer compared with low-cost carriers in the region which tend to be younger and not yet profitable?
Jetstar chief pilot Captain Andrew Strauss acknowledges that experience is important.
That is why, he said, whether it is a low-cost carrier or full-service airline, there is always a captain and a first officer in the cockpit.
In the end, experts concur on two things.
First, statistics show that air travel is becoming more safe with the number of accidents falling, despite more airlines and more people taking to the skies.
Second, there is no basis in saying that a full-service airline is safer than a budget carrier because safety is a factor of other things like the carrier's commitment and how strictly local regulators enforce internationally recognised and accepted standards.
Miss Alicia Seah, vice-president (leisure) of UOB Travel Planners said: "We have to accept that accidents can and will happen to any airline and at any time."
So what is a traveller to do?
She said: "It helps for consumers to be more discerning and aware of what's happening around them. For example, opt to fly on a carrier with a good track record for safety, and where possible, choose well-established airlines like Tiger or Jetstar."
- Safety comes first for Tiger and Jetstar
- M'sia: No frills, but safety standard still high
- Indonesia: Industry dogged by safety concerns, pilot shortage
- Thailand: From zero to 5m in 4 years
- Philippines: Clearer skies after early turbulence
- Vietnam: Surge in flights to trendy destination
- Low-cost at what cost? - Do your checks before you fly budget