RECORD-HIGH oil prices have sparked the biggest crisis in the Asian airline industry since the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) SARS scare, and analysts say some carriers are likely to go under if prices do not let up soon.
They say many of the region's airlines are ill-prepared to cope with the price surge, which saw oil top US$139 (S$190.75) per barrel last week amid wide expectation prices will only keep rising in the months ahead.
'No one is going to escape this crisis unscathed', said Derek Sabudin, an analyst from the Sydney-based Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation consultancy.
He said airlines face a 'severe shakeout' if extremely high fuel prices continue, with the industry already coping with the fallout from a US-led global economic slowdown.
'Carriers will be exiting the market', Sabudin said. 'The weaker ones will go, and stronger carriers will shrink in size, if we see prices where they are above US$120 beyond the summer peak.'
Shukor Yusof, an aviation analyst with Standard and Poor's Equity Research, said most carriers had not factored in prices at such 'stratospheric' levels - and that they were now not moving quickly enough in response.
'If prices continue rising and hit US$150 a barrel or even higher, he said, 'expect to see a rash of Asian carriers grounded and go bust.'
The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which had predicted an industry profit of US$4.5 billion this year, is now projecting a loss of US$2.3 billion.
The IATA, which represents more than 200 carriers that account for 94 per cent of global traffic, says that every one dollar rise in oil prices will increase airline operating costs by US$1.6 billion annually.
Airlines already expected to pay about US$176 billion for fuel expenses this year based on oil prices of US$106.5 per barrel, said IATA, adding fuel accounts for 34 per cent of operating costs.
Overall, analysts say, it is the worst crisis to hit Asia's aviation industry since SARS killed almost 800 people in 32 countries in a 2002-2003 outbreak.
The health scare led to a massive slump in regional travel as well as financial losses for major carriers including Japan Airlines Group, China Airlines of Taiwan, and Singapore Airlines (SIA).
To deal with the crisis, SIA slashed capacity by 30 per cent while Philippine low-cost carrier Cebu Pacific suspended its route to Singapore.
In the face of the current situation, some regional carriers have begun to replicate the cost-cutting measures rolled out by US airlines trying to cope with the steep oil price rise.
Australian flag carrier Qantas announced plans last month to slash domestic capacity by five per cent, cut payroll, and retire several aircraft. The airline also reduced service to Asia.
Thai Airways said last Friday it is cancelling its direct flight from Bangkok to New York, starting July, and selling four planes used on that route.
Malaysia Airlines said it would freeze recruitment and was considering axing more routes as part of cost-cutting measures triggered by rising fuel prices.
Apart from their financial reserves, the strategies adopted by Asian carriers will determine whether they can survive this latest crisis, said Jason Pereira, a senior associate with Las Vegas-based Globalysis consultancy.
'It is a combination of financial reserve strength and smart strategy that will see some airlines come out on top', said Mr Pereira, who monitors the region from Singapore.
Some analysts say the region's low-cost carriers are more vulnerable to rising oil prices because they are typically managed on a tight budget.
Tiger Airways and AirAsia, two leading budget airlines in Southeast Asia, have both said that they will survive the turbulence - and even emerge stronger. -- AFP