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Opinion

Government and Economy

On safety:
Low-cost carrier accidents and the future of the airline industry

Hajime Tozaki
Professor, Faculty of Commerce, Waseda University

A series of aviation accidents since last year have caused many to question aviation safety. There is widespread concern of a considerable correlation between the accidents and the current state of low-cost carriers (LCCs). To address this issue, let us review the major accidents that have occurred over the past year.

Last year, on December 18, an aircraft operated by Indonesia AirAsia (an Indonesian affiliate of Malaysia-based LCC AirAsia) crashed into the Kalimantan Sea during its flight from Surabaya, Indonesia to Singapore. The pilot reportedly increased altitude to avoid thunderclouds, but the plane climbed too rapidly, causing it to crash into the sea. Many question the need for such a rapid maneuver and have led some to suspect that perhaps there were issues with how the plan was operated.

Earlier in the year, on March 8, a Malaysia Airlines flight disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing, China. Its whereabouts remain a mystery. The incident drew criticism from China that Malaysian authorities had failed to take responsibility for the many Chinese passengers aboard.

Then, on July 17, a Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down over Ukraine while en route from Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands to Malaysia. In this case, it was the flight’s passage through dangerous airspace over a war zone that was called into question.

Although not an LCC, Malaysia Airlines's position in the market place has deteriorated due to intense competition from LCCs. If this factor compromised the airline’s management system and thus contributed to the accidents, the state of market competition influenced by LCCs needs to be carefully examined.

Meanwhile, three serious accidents involving Malaysian carriers in one year may point to issues specific to Malaysia’s aviation administration and market conditions.

These issues are not limited to incidents involving Malaysia, however. This year, on March 24, a Germanwings aircraft crashed in the Alps on its flight from Barcelona, Spain to Dusseldorf, Germany. The co-pilot intentionally locked the captain out of the cockpit and put the airplane into a steep descent where it crashed, taking the lives of many passengers and crew members as well as his own.

According to media reports, the copilot had stated he would do something significant to attract public attention and promote the improvement of pilots' labor conditions. It is true that LCCs fly their aircrafts as frequently as possible in order to improve efficiency and it is therefore assumed pilots spend more time flying than in traditional airline companies. However, it is difficult to imagine that these pilots faced the same type of extreme working conditions that may have led to the deaths of Japanese truck drivers from overwork. Admittedly, it seems the copilot was suffering from some physical problems, and the airline can be faulted for not addressing these problems despite being aware of them. However, the question of just how precisely check systems can be implemented and managed, including those that monitor the mental state of individual pilots, is a difficult one for any airline to address. Cockpit access regulations will never slacken even though tightened regulations following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks backfired in this instance. Countries throughout the world are reexamining their aviation standards to determine appropriate measures. In Japan, a policy that would have a cabin crew member stay inside the cockpit whenever a pilot leaves is being deliberated, but there are serious reservations regarding its effectiveness.

On April 14, an Asiana Airlines flight arriving at Hiroshima Airport from Seoul skidded onto the runway on its tail after losing height on its final approach, despite being in contact with radio navigation. Heavy fog notwithstanding, it remains a mystery why the pilot approached the runway at such an abnormally low altitude. Asiana Airlines was established in 1988 in an attempt to challenge the monopolistic dominance of Korean Airways, South Korea’s top airline. In Japan, the airline’s presence has been characterized by an aggressive expansion of flights to local airports and is recognized for saving many Japanese airports facing financial difficulty. But the airline has also gained a reputation for its many accidents and incidents. While Asiana Airlines may not be an LCC, it views Korean Airways as a rival and is aggressively trying to take over the market, similar to that of an LCC. The Asiana Airlines accident thus holds great significance.

LCCs are not inherently about blindly cutting costs. They invest appropriate amounts of money where needed and allocate costs in a variety of ways. Furthermore, there is no difference in the way low-cost carriers and other carriers are licensed to participate in the air transport industry.

There have not yet been any serious accidents involving LCCs in Japan. There are many flights that have had to be cancelled, however, due to a shortage of pilots. The airline I considered to be similar to a LCC, Skymark Airlines, has fallen into bankruptcy. It is now three years since the “first LCC year” of 2012, when Peach, Jetstar Japan and AirAsia Japan began offering domestic flights in 2012. Narita Airport opened a terminal just for LCCs on April 8. We must thoroughly examine recent accidents and what has led us to this point, and use this information to determine our next step. After all, LCCs are expected to play a significant role in promoting inbound tourism and stimulating local economies.

Hajime Tozaki
Professor, Faculty of Commerce, Waseda University

[Profile]
Dr. Tozaki was born in Osaka in 1963. After graduating from the Faculty of Economics, Kyoto University, he started working for Japan Airlines. He held positions in airport service, passenger sales, and reservation management and was sent on temporary assignment to the Japan Center for Economic Research. He then left the company to focus on his studies and earn a Ph.D. in Economics. After working at Teikyo University and Meiji University, he assumed his current position in April, 2013. His major publications include Airline Deregulation [Kōkū no Kisei Kanwa], An Illustrated Guide to the Future of the Airline Business [Zukai: Korekara no Kōkū Bijinesu Hayawakari] and The Aviation Industry and Lifelines [Kōkū Sangyō to Raifurain].