Dozens of new airlines have been popping up across Asia to meet the industry's booming demand, but a string of deadly accidents has raised fresh concerns about safety — from pilot shortages to the quality of budget carriers.
The Indonesian pilot of the One-Two-Go Airlines plane that skidded off the runway and burst into flames on Thailand's resort island of Phuket, killing him and 88 others, was among scores who have fled their home countries in recent years for better paying jobs.
The former Air Force pilot had worked for two now-defunct airlines in Indonesia, including one owned by former dictator Suharto's son. But the country still has 51 carriers, up from a dozen several years ago, illustrating how rapidly the industry is growing in the world's largest region.
"As disposable income increases and economies grow, more people within Asia are traveling," said Richard Pinkham of the Center for Asia Pacific Aviation. "That is what is driving low-cost carrier growth."
It's too early to say what caused Flight 269 to crash in stormy weather, though one aviation expert, citing Thai aviation officials, said the pilot reportedly requested to circle around again because he could not see the runway, but the plane was already too low.
"It was hit by wind shear or strong winds and he didn't have time to react," said Tom Ballantyne, chief corespondent for Orient Aviation magazine, adding that the bigger question was whether the airport should have been allowing planes to land in such weather.
Many of the victims were foreigners, heading to one of Asia's top tourist destinations, which is now served by eight low-cost carriers like Firefly and Nok Air. Only big international airlines, like Thai Airways, flew there a few years ago.
Ballantyne urged travelers do their homework when choosing flights.
More than 50 low-frills airlines have cropped up, many offering rock-bottom prices, sometimes as low as $20 for a one-way trip, though full-service carriers still dominate the skies, accounting for more than 90 regional market.
"Look for accidents or safety issues," Ballantyne said, pointing to airlines connected to strong parent companies — like more-reputable Jetstar, operated by Australia's Qantas Airways, or Tiger Airways, which is 49 percent owned by Singapore Airlines.
"Look at the sort of planes the airline is operating. Are they new or old? What is the background of the airline?"
One-Two-Go Airlines is tied to Bangkok-based Orient-Thai Airlines, which has had its own share of problems over the past few years. One plane nearly clipped a tower in Tokyo's city center while landing and others were issued warnings in South Korea for having outdated passenger safety manuals, he said.
The rash of plane crashes and mishaps in Asia in 2007 include a China Airlines jetliner that exploded in Japan after its fuel tank ruptured. Everyone on board narrowly escaped. A PMT Air plane slammed into a mountain while traveling to a popular Cambodian beach resort, killing 22.
Most incidents have occurred in Indonesia — with budget carrier Adam Air plunging from the sky at 35,000 feet and national carrier Garuda careening off the runway. Another jetliner snapped in half on landing. Together, more than 120 people have died.
The country, struggling to clean up its image after the European Union banned all of its airlines from landing, says it is taking steps to improve aviation standards, from providing better training of personnel to lengthening emergency runoffs on runways.
Like other nations, Indonesia is also struggling to keep pilots from fleeing to higher-paying carriers elsewhere in the world — dozens have been lured to the Middle East and other parts of Asia.
That trend — in part the result of extraordinary air traffic growth in China and India — also worries aviation experts.
"There is a global pilot shortage, for sure," said Nicholas Ionides, regional managing editor, Flight International magazine. "As more and more aircraft are coming into the industry, and particular this region ... there is going to be an even greater shortfall of trained flight-deck personnel."
Associated Press writers Margie Mason in Jakarta and Vijay Joshi in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.