Economic turbulence ahead: Aviation safety in Southeast Asia

Economic turbulence ahead: Aviation safety in Southeast Asia

Indonesia’s recent Trigana Air plane crash is evidence of the region’s failure to grapple with a number of aviation safety challenges. Without a move to remedy this failure, it is likely to have a negative impact on the region’s travel and tourism sector.

Indonesia’s Trigana Air Service flight lost contact with air traffic control on August 16. Plane debris was subsequently spotted in the eastern Indonesian province of Papua, and search crews were dispatched to assess the scene. The debris was confirmed as belonging to the Trigana Air flight. None of the 54 passengers on board survived.

The crash is the latest in a string of air disasters to hit Southeast Asia. The infamous Malaysia Airlines flight 370 disappeared on March 8, 2014, while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, carrying 12 crew members and 227 passengers. Debris from the flight has recently surfaced on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean.

Only four months after the disappearance, Malaysia Airlines flight 17 traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur crashed after being shot down, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew members on board. On December 28, Indonesia AirAsia Flight QZ8501 travelling from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore crashed in the Java Sea, killing all 162 people on board.

More recently, on June 30, a C-130 Hercules aircraft belonging to the Indonesian Air Force crashed near a residential neighbourhood. All 12 crew members and 110 passengers were killed, including 17 people on the ground.

Southeast Asia’s aviation safety challenges

The spate of air disasters raises the question of whether it is safe to fly in Southeast Asia. The past decade has seen unprecedented regional economic growth. This in turn has seen the airline industry thrive, with a burgeoning number of low-cost air carriers emerging.

Statistics by the International Air Transport Association suggest that the region now accounts for 33% of global air passenger traffic, and this is expected to grow to 42% in the next two decades. Airline expansion and increased air traffic through Southeast Asia has placed a strain on pilots, regulators, air traffic control systems, and airport infrastructure.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has no regional agency to oversee aviation safety. According to professor of aviation law, Alan Khee-Jin Tan, regional states “need to make technical harmonization a priority”.

A 2014 International Civil Aviation Organisation report claimed that a third of airplane accidents in the Asia-Pacific region between 2008 and 2012 “involved deficiencies in regulatory oversight”, with another 27% involving “deficiencies in safety management”.

The agency has also recently “red flagged” Thailand over significant aviation safety concerns. This came after an audit conducted in March raised concerns over the country’s ability to oversee its airlines. The agency found that Thailand had failed to resolve issues within a given time frame.

Impact on the tourism sector

Tourism is an important economic activity in Southeast Asia, directly contributing to many countries’ GDP through sectors such as hotels, airports and leisure and recreation services. Tourism also indirectly contributes to a country’s GDP through investment, government spending, and domestic purchases of goods and services.

According to a 2015 report produced by the World Travel & Tourism Council, the total contribution of travel and tourism to GDP in Southeast Asia in 2014 was US$291.8 billion. This is expected to grow by 5.4% in 2015.

In 2014, Southeast Asia generated $112.0 billion in visitor exports and attracted capital investment of $49.0 billion.

Reports of poor aviation safety in Southeast Asia are likely to have a negative impact on traveler confidence, which will damage the region’s expected growth. Indeed, recent reports suggest this may already be occurring.

Key Southeast Asian states have noticed a marked drop in Chinese tourism, upon which the region is heavily reliant. According to the Centre for Aviation, 3.8 million Chinese visitors travelled to core Northeast and Southeast Asia in 2014 compared to 2013, representing 19% growth.

However, this growth was concentrated exclusively in Northeast Asia, while Southeast Asia, with the exception of Thailand, actually retracted, and continues to shrink. Excluding Thailand, which remains popular due to visa-free travel, Chinese tourist arrivals in Southeast Asia decreased to 6.2 million in 2014 from 6.4 million in 2013.

The Aviation report states that tourism levels in Vietnam and the Philippines have been impacted by political events, while Malaysia has suffered as a result of the MH370 tragedy.

As regional aviation disasters increase, this trend is likely to continue. This could be disastrous for those states with struggling economies, such as Indonesia. If regional states want to protect their economies and prevent the tragic loss of life, it is vital they invest in enhanced safety management and regulatory oversight, sooner rather than later.

About Author

Laura Southgate

Dr Laura Southgate is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Aston University in Birmingham, United Kingdom. She has a PhD in International Relations from the University of Otago, New Zealand, and an MA in International Relations and Security, and a BA in Law and Politics, from the University of Liverpool. Her research focuses on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the international relations and security of Southeast Asia.