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The dark side of Asia's air travel boom

Late December's deadly crash of AirAsia Flight 8501 on route from Indonesia to Singapore, along with the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 last March and other accidents in recent years involving Asian-based airlines, has drawn new attention to the state of air travel and commercial aviation in the Asia-Pacific region.

Asia-Pacific air travel has been booming in recent years. "It is no understatement to say that air connectivity underpins modern economies," Tony Tyler, director general and CEO of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), said during a speech in November to Asia-Pacific airline industry officials in Tokyo.

According to Tyler, aviation and air-based tourism accounts for over 24 million jobs and $500 billion in regional economic activity. And he noted that by 2034, nearly half of all global air travel will touch the Asia-Pacific region, making up an expected two-thirds of growth in the global aviation sector.

The Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA) says its region's air carriers account for nearly one-third of worldwide passenger traffic and close to 40 percent of global cargo traffic.

Globalization and a rising middle class in China and other emerging Asian economies are among the factors contributing to that air travel boom. Regional airlines such as Singapore-based Tigerair and China's Ruili Airlines have been on a buying spree, snapping up commercial aircraft in multibillion-dollar packages.

But along with cutthroat competition -- the AAPA says 75 percent of the region's air routes are serviced by at least three airlines -- the rapid growth is also creating a lot of training, infrastructure and maintenance challenges for the dozens of full-service and discount airlines that currently vie for market share.

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Discount airlines are growing increasingly popular in Asia, especially in China and Japan, and now account for more than 10 percent of passenger traffic.

And because many of these regional Asia-Pacific airlines are relatively new, "the regulation and also the maintenance standards are largely not standardized," Christopher Tang, distinguished professor in Decisions, Operations, and Technology Management at UCLA's Anderson School of Management, told CBS MoneyWatch. "There are a lot of local regulations, local requirements, but that is only a starting point."

Tang points out the surge in Asia-Pacific business and leisure travel is also creating a shortage of skilled and experienced airline pilots. And Boeing (BA) estimates the Asia-Pacific region will need 216,000 new pilots over the next two decades.

"The exponential growth in and the demand for air travel were not anticipated by many of the governments in the region," Shukor Yusof, founder of the aviation research firm Endau Analytics, told the Associated Press. "And so you're seeing a lack of infrastructure, airports and pilots because nobody expected low-cost travel would have taken off as quickly, as rapidly, and would be as lucrative as it is now."

The AirAsia tragedy has prompted some governments to take action. Indonesia's air ministry says Flight 8501 was apparently allowed to take off without the proper permits, and Indonesian officials are launching an investigation of all airlines flying in the country to ensure they're complying with regulations.

The commercial aviation consultancy AirInsight says a sizable gap still exists between the level of predictability and safety found in some Asian airlines compared to their Western counterparts -- a discrepancy that must be addressed.

"There can be no shortcuts in aviation where safety is the No. 1 issue," it noted last week, "and regulatory oversight in Asia will need to catch up with the west if traffic is to safely grow over the next two decades."