JUST five years ago, no one in Malaysia could have imagined that a flight could be as cheap as a bus trip.
Except perhaps Mr Tony Fernandes, the colourful founder of AirAsia, the region's pioneer low-cost carrier.
He bought over the then loss-making company, and the new AirAsia burst onto the scene in 2002 with its cheery red-and-white planes.
Air travel became cheap and casual.
Suddenly, everyone could fly, and it seems that everyone has.
AirAsia flights carried 8.7 million people last year, and the airline is expecting 11 million for this year.
The numbers look set to grow rapidly as its long-haul service, through its offshoot AirAsia X, was launched last month.
AirAsia X's first flight took off from Kuala Lumpur to the Gold Coast in Australia on Nov 2. The inaugural flight was sold out, and November's passenger load has exceeded 70 per cent.
NGUYEN BICH KHAI, 30
Photo courtesy of Nguyen Bich Khai
High school teacher in Hanoi, Vietnam
Fare: US$148 (S$214) return
Best thing about the flight: Quite cheap.
Worst thing: Own snacks not allowed. I was travelling with my five-year-old daughter, Pham Quynh Anh (above), but I could not take any food on board and had to buy the in-flight food which was not cheap.
Will you fly budget again? Yes, if it is a short flight of under six hours.
Flights to China and London's Stansted airport are also on the cards.
AirAsia's bitter rival, national carrier Malaysia Airlines, has also joined the low-cost game.
In April, it launched a new 'community airline' called Firefly - in essence, a low-cost carrier with trademark low fares, minimum frills, and a quick turnaround time.
So far, Firefly is not a direct competitor to AirAsia as it serves routes out of Penang, and now also Kuala Lumpur's old Subang airport.
But with AirAsia having gained the rights to fly twice a day to Singapore, Firefly is also now lobbying to fly to Singapore from Subang.
Firefly, too, has been remarkably successful, with an average passenger load of 70 per cent.
To most Malaysians, there is little to choose between low-cost and full-fare airlines. They did initially wonder if low cost meant cutting corners, but the good safety record of the airlines has put that worry to rest.
All Malaysian-owned airlines have a good safety air record, said Mr Idros Abd Rahman, chief inspector of air accidents with the government's Department of Civil Aviation (DCA).
He told The Straits Times that government safety regulations apply equally to all airline operators. "There is no difference," he said.
The last major accident was in 1995 when a Malaysia Airlines flight crashed when landing in Tawau, Sabah, killing 34.
Budget airlines have not been involved in any crashes, but in the last five years, there were two runway incidents, both involving AirAsia.
One took place in November 2004 when the aircraft skidded off the runway in heavy rain in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. Two passengers and the two pilots had minor injuries. The plane was damaged badly.
The other was a minor incident in Alor Star in November 2003 where an AirAsia plane landed in the rain and veered off the runway. There was minor damage to the plane, but no one was hurt.
Mr Idros said Malaysia's safety regulations are in compliance with international standards. This includes maintenance, regular checks, training of pilots, engineers and crew, and their working hours.
The airlines undergo a mandatory inspection once a year, while the DCA also carries out random checks.
"So far, we have not had cause to ground any plane," he said.
The International Civil Aviation Organisation had also given the Malaysian airlines a clean bill of health after an audit in 2005.
Firefly managing director Eddy Leong said that it has adopted its parent Malaysia Airlines' safety systems, and is also subject to its scrutiny.
Its pilots are borrowed from Malaysia Airlines.
Among the issues that often cause worry is whether a 20-minute turnaround time is adequate for an aircraft check, but DCA's Mr Idros said the plane will not be able to take off without a set of checks.
There are also concerns about older aircraft typically used by low-cost airlines but experts say that a well-maintained old plane is safe.
Firefly uses two Fokker 50 planes that are about 15 years old, maintained by Malaysia Airlines' engineering and maintenance unit.
AirAsia is progressively switching to a new fleet of Airbus 320 aircraft.
It has ordered 150 A320 planes to completely replace its current fleet of Boeing 737-300s.
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