How Safe is Air Travel in Southeast Asia?

How Safe is Air Travel in Southeast Asia?

The tragedies of Malaysia Airlines Flights 370 and 17 (MH370, MH17), and Indonesia AirAsia Flight 8501 (QZ8501) during 2014 have caused several media outlets to question the safety of the airline industry in Southeast Asia. However, close examination of Southeast Asian carriers shows that blanket condemnations of these airlines are highly inaccurate. While there are some carriers in Southeast Asia that travelers should avoid, a knowledgeable traveler should be able to find safe options for air travel in the region.

The primary issue with aviation safety in Southeast Asia is inadequate government oversight of airlines in certain countries, which means that travelers must trust the individual airlines to maintain adequate safety standards on their own. The United States Federal Aviation Administration has stated that oversight by Indonesia’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which is responsible for ensuring that airlines meet appropriate safety standards, is inadequate. The Indonesian CAA also performed poorly in a 2014 audit by the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), receiving scores below the global average in every category. The European Union also bans most airlines from Indonesia and the Philippines from EU airspace due to poor oversight.  

However, the problem of poor government oversight of airlines is not universal across Southeast Asia. U.S. and EU authorities have both found the Malaysian and Thai CAAs to be in line with international standards, despite the Malaysian government’s much-­‐criticized response to the disappearance of flight MH370. The Singaporean CAA is widely seen as a gold standard, receiving a 100% score in every category in its most recent ICAO audit.

The airline industry in Southeast Asia has grown enormously over the past decade. Rapid airline growth in any region presents several potential concerns, but the major carriers in Southeast Asia have generally grown in a responsible manner, without compromising safety standards. Potential concerns with rapid airline growth include aircraft age, experience of pilots and maintenance standards. While some smaller carriers in Southeast Asia operate fleets of relatively old, second-­‐hand aircraft, the region’s largest carriers have grown by buying brand new aircraft giving them some of the most modern fleets in the world.

Carriers in Southeast Asia have struggled to hire experienced pilots with Indonesia’s Lion Air in particular suffering several recent incidents that were blamed on pilot error. The European Commission also cited low levels of pilot experience at Lion Air as a reason for not removing the carrier from its list of banned airlines. However, Lion Air recently started its own flying school to give the airline a steady stream of trained pilots, which will likely improve piloting standards at the airline in the future. Other carriers the region, including Malaysia Airlines, Philippine Airlines, Thai Airways, and AirAsia already operate their own pilot and crew training academies.

Travelers seeking airlines with robust safety standards in Southeast Asia have several resources to turn to. The European Union’s list of airlines banned within the EU lists airlines that have inadequate CAA oversight. Travelers should take special note of airlines that have received exemptions from nationwide bans, as these carriers have passed special EU inspections to ensure that they meet the EU’s safety standards. Such airlines include Indonesia’s Garuda Indonesia and Indonesia AirAsia, and the Philippines’ Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific. Lion Air’s continued inclusion on the list of banned airlines is also notable, as the airline has tried but failed to receive an exemption from the ban on Indonesian carriers.

Several major airlines have also set up affiliated carriers in the region, which are likely to have safety standards that closely match those of their parent carriers. Australia’s Jetstar, Singapore’s Tigerair, and Malaysia’s AirAsia have all started local affiliate carriers in countries across Southeast Asia. Several of the region’s large national carriers also have affiliate carriers, including Singapore Airlines (Silkair and Scoot), Malaysia Airlines (Firefly), and Garuda Indonesia (Citilink).

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), the primary global trade group for airlines, is also an important resource for travelers. All IATA members must pass the IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA), the most comprehensive audit of airline operational and safety standards that exists on a global scale. IATA member airlines in Southeast Asia include Bangkok Airways, Garuda Indonesia, Malaysia Airlines, Philippine Airlines, Royal Brunei Airlines, Silkair, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, and Vietnam Airlines.

Another important indicator of an airline with robust safety standards is membership in one of the three global airline alliances, SkyTeam, Oneworld, or Star Alliance. Membership indicates that member airlines are willing to let their paying customers travel on the airline, and applicant airlines must pass extensive audits to gain membership. Alliance members in Southeast Asia include SkyTeam’s Garuda Indonesia and Vietnam Airlines, Oneworld’s Malaysia Airlines, and Star Alliance’s Singapore Airlines and Thai Airways.

Malaysia Airlines’ continued membership in Oneworld following the MH370 and MH17 disasters is especially significant, as it indicates that alliance members remain confident in the airline’s safety standards despite the tragedies. Garuda Indonesia’s 2014 entry into SkyTeam is also notable, as the airline had a poor safety record prior to a major operational turnaround in 2009. The airline’s entry into SkyTeam is a strong indicator of the success of this turnaround.

iJET maintains a list of over 300 airlines, which are classified based on operational and safety standards. Airlines that are deemed to meet a minimum set of safety and operations criteria are "preferred", those that do not meet minimum requirements are considered higher-­‐risk or "not preferred".

Preferred carriers in Southeast Asia

Marginal Preferred or On Watch carriers in SE Asia

Not Preferred carriers in Southeast Asia

Air Niugini


Air Bagan


Cebu Pacific

Air Mandalay

AirAsia X

Citilink Indonesia

AirAsia Zest

Bangkok Airways

Malaysia Airlines

Batavia Air



Lion Air

Garuda Indonesia


Malindo Air

Indonesia AirAsia


Myanma Airways

Jetstar Asia


Pelita Air Service

Jetstar Pacific Airlines


Sriwijaya Air



Tigerair Mandala

Myanmar Airways




Wings Air

Nok Air



Philippine Airlines



Royal Brunei Airlines



Silk Air



Singapore Airlines



Thai AirAsia



Thai Airways



Tiger Airways






Vietnam Airlines



As of January 12, 2015



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