The current generation of low-cost carriers has created a new market in air travel. Air Asia in Malaysia; Ryanair & Germanwings in Europe; and Jetstar & Tiger in Australia are classic examples.
But do the cheap fares offered by “no-frills” airlines – and the different standards implicit in their “low cost” business model – pose air safety risks for travellers?
From the point of view of the safety regulators, the answer is a resounding NO. All airlines must strictly comply with the same rigorous safety standards, they say.
But given the high proportion of fatal accidents in which low-cost carriers are involved, the question deserves closer examination.
The distinguishing feature of the LCC business model is its low-cost structure. As we all know, the airline charges extra for legroom, refreshments, baggage, blankets and movies.
Also imperative to the model are rapid ground turnarounds, limited or no baggage transfers to connecting flights and engaging staff in multiple roles.
Lugging heavy baggage to a boarding gate at the extremity of the terminal carries an outside chance of injury, as do stairs – as opposed to aerobridges – for embarking and disembarking.
Employees with multiple roles – flight attendants also working as gate agents and for aircraft cleaning – opens up crew fatigue as an issue.
But the greatest factors that may affect aircraft safety are the training and experience level of the flight deck crew.
LCC flight crews are recruited under much lower pay scales and (usually) with vastly less flight experience, than their colleagues performing the same role in a legacy airline like Qantas or Lufthansa.
Pilots recruited for First Officer training by some LCCs have logged as few as 1,000 hours. They then must fund their own training upgrade and aircraft-type conversion (at a cost of up to $100k) through the carrier’s own training organisation or a third party contracted to the carrier.
Legacy airlines typically have a minimum requirement of 3,000 hours with 1,000 hours on commercial jets. With a LCC, a pilot can gain a command (captain) in as few as 5 years with less than 5,000 jet aircraft hours.
At the other end of the spectrum, the typical time to command for young pilots at a legacy airline is 10 – 12 years and at least 10,000 hours jet time. Correspondingly, LCC air crew earn salaries as low as 25% of those enjoyed by their legacy colleagues.
Richard de Crespigny – a captain with 35 years and more than 30,000 hrs aeronautical experience – who guided his heavily damaged Qantas A380 Airbus to a safe emergency landing at Singapore Changi airport in November 2010, is on record as saying it was only his flight hours those of the other pilots coincidentally in the cockpit that night, that saved the aircraft and 470 souls from catastrophe.
The pilot of Germanwings flight 9525 that crashed into the French Alps yesterday en route from Barcelona to Dusseldorf after an eight-minute descent at about 4000 feet a minute, held at least 6,000 hours aeronautical experience.
One would think the skill and judgment that a 30,000-hour captain can bring to a flight deck emergency – compared to a less experienced colleague – speaks for itself.
AirAsia Flight 8501 which crashed in bad weather in the Java Sea in December en route to Singapore was captained by a 20,000 hour pilot with more than 6,000 on the Airbus A320 itself.
The cause of the Germanwings and Air Asia crashes have not yet been determined.
Air travel is booming due to lower fuel costs, more efficient aircraft and bigger passenger numbers, particularly from Asia.
An estimated 500,000 new pilots will be needed over the coming decade to replace those retiring and to fill 350,000 new flight deck positions – mostly for Low-Cost carriers – to cope with the worldwide growth of the industry.
It will be a major industry challenge – in such an environment – to mentor “junior” pilots with the skills, experience and culture of their senior commanders.