Rapidly-Growing Asian Airlines Race to Find Qualified Pilots

Associated PressThe deadly crash of a TransAsia plane into a river in Taiwan is again focusing the world’s attention on the safety challenges facing fast-growing Asian airlines.

TransAsia has been adding new routes rapidly since the Taiwanese carrier went public in 2011. TransAsia and others like it are rushing to keep up with a travel boom driven by the region’s growing middle class.

The ease and increasing affordability of flying helps fuel economic growth and a better lifestyle for Asian consumers. But as airlines carry more passengers across increasingly crowded skies, they are also racing to train enough pilots.

“The demand is almost exceeding the supply,” says John M. Cox, who spent 25 years flying for US Airways and is now CEO of consultancy Safety Operating Systems.

Quickly-growing airlines need to maintain standards as they hire more pilots, maintenance workers, dispatchers and flight attendants. Cox says the Asian carriers are currently meeting those marks, but it’s a big challenge.

TransAsia Airways Flight 235 crashed Wednesday shortly after takeoff from Taipei, Taiwan, with 58 people aboard. Dramatic video from a car’s dashboard camera captured the moment that the plane, tilting madly, clipped a bridge before landing in a shallow river. At least 26 people were killed.

It was the second fatal accident in just over six months for the airline and its seventh serious accident in the past two decades, according aerospace publication Flightglobal. It comes barely a month after one of Indonesian carrier AirAsia planes crashed into the Java Sea traveling from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore, killing all 162 aboard.

As Southeast Asia’s economies grow, more people have money to travel and airlines are adding planes to whisk them across the region.

Aircraft manufactures Airbus, ATR, Boeing, Bombardier and Embraer delivered a whopping 1,543 new planes to airlines last year. That means a total of 30 planes rolled off their collective assembly lines every week — the fastest production rate in the history of commercial aviation.

Most of those aircraft went to Asia.

TransAsia Airways, Taiwan’s third-biggest airline, has been part of that buying spree. The airline was founded in 1951 but has undergone a growth spurt following its market debut on the Taiwan stock exchange in 2011. It has added about two dozen routes to mainland China and other Asian cities. TransAsia flies about 20 planes from its base at Taipei’s Sungshan Airport and has enough new aircraft orders to double its fleet within five years.

The turboprop plane that crashed Wednesday was less than a year old, according to Ascend, an aviation consultancy. It is an ATR 72-600, made by a joint venture of Airbus Group and Italy’s Alenia Aermacchi. The aircraft was powered by two Pratt & Whitney PW100-127M engines. TransAsia also flies Airbus jets on some short-haul routes around Asia.

The airline’s most serious crash occurred last July, when 48 people were killed after another turboprop plane crashed on an island off mainland China during stormy weather.

It’s too soon to say what might have caused Wednesday’s crash.

Keith McGuire, a former accident investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, says rapid growth can strain an airline’s pilot training and maintenance, but carriers with good safety and training programs can handle it.

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