The latest tragedy involving a Malaysian air carrier dominates the news at year's end and the mystery of why Air Asia's short hop from Indonesia to Singapore ended so terribly is still unsolved. Weather is the most prevalent theory and the most plausible, since it's thunderstorm season in Southeast Asia right now.
This still is a troublesome hypothesis, since flights in that region safely negotiate thunderstorms with regularity; these are not unusual events for airline pilots. What sticks with me are memories of past Air Asia flights and why I no longer use that carrier, even though its fares are often so low that it seems ridiculous not to.
My last journey with Air Asia was from Hong Kong to Penang, a quick flight that takes only several hours. It was so turbulent that the man sitting beside me crossed himself and began to pray, and I have never been so happy to touch Malaysian soil. Other Air Asia flights before that were always significantly more dramatic than I would have liked, although not as consistently bad as my last. "I don't use them anymore," a friend who frequently commuted by air between Bangkok and Ho Chi Min City told me, "I'd rather pay more and have a good flight. Air Asia always ends up frightening me."
"Why didn't the pilot turn back after being denied a change in route?" is a resonant one. Does Air Asia, as a budget carrier, receive routes that are less desirable than other airlines? Are pilots discouraged from aborting a flight? Will anyone ever know?
Still, even Air Asia is a more secure and less dangerous option than the bus journeys that cross Southeast Asia every hour of every day. Fatalities of bus travelers were regularly reported in Penang's daily papers when I lived there, and the Bangkok Post rarely lacks similar stories,
Thailand alone boasts the second-highest rate of traffic deaths in the world, with long-distance buses taking the lead in those fatalities. Recently a tourist van en route to Bangkok's airport crashed into a highway maintenance truck and claimed several lives. Today's news told of severe injuries incurred by tourists in Phuket, when a bus taking them from one beach to another hit a car and "tumbled down a small hill." And truthfully, any of us who have lived in--or visited--Bangkok have faced more danger when taking a motorcycle taxi than on any airplane flight, no matter how turbulent.
But even so, the 7,784 highway deaths in Thailand in 2012 (the most recent statistic that I could find online) dwarfs the 475 deaths in the air worldwide for the same year. What strange mental quirk makes us fear the skill of highly trained pilots and trust in someone who drives blissfully free of any regulation at all?