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Skies More Friendly in Asia Than in U.S.


NPR's correspondent in Southeast Asia is Michael Sullivan. He's watched the airline troubles from afar and frankly he's pretty happy to be flying in Asia.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Hey, remember when you used to dread the thought of flying abroad. The overcrowded, chaotic airports, the ratty aircraft, lost luggage and lost time. I swear that's the way many people in Asia now think about traveling to, and especially in, the U.S.

While American carriers are cutting back on new orders and American airports limp along, Asian carriers and Asian airports are humming. Pulled along in part by the economic engine that is China.

In the States, you fly an airplane that we used to get as hand-me-downs back when American fleets upgraded more often. These days the planes in Asia are some of the youngest and most modern in the world, and we still get free meals and drinks and headphones too. And more often than not, a smile along with them.

A new report by the Center for Asia Pacific Aviation predicts Asia will add one new plane every day for the next five years. And only half that demand is from China. The launch customer for the new 737-900 from the American firm Boeing is an Indonesian carrier, Lion Air, which has about 100 more on order.

The launch customer for Boeing's highly touted and much delayed 787 dreamliner is a Japanese carrier, ANA. The first customer for Airbus's new double-decker A-380, an Asian carrier, Singapore Airlines. Average age of Singapore's fleet, about six years.

My home carrier, Vietnam Airlines, flies planes almost as new and can't keep up with demand. Another Asian country looking firmly to the future.

Many American carriers are wondering, of course, if they even have a future, which helps explain their reluctance to buy new planes. Asian carriers, on the other hand, know that buying new fuel-efficient aircraft will help the bottom line in a future they see as bright.

Asia also seems to have a leg up in terms of infrastructure too. Hong Kong, Kuala-Lumpur, Bangkok, all have spacious new airports with plenty of glass and light and plenty to do, which makes it even harder to get on a plane for the so-called developed world.

I left Singapore's gleaming new terminal last week for the West and quickly stumbled into an air transport trifecta from hell - Frankfurt, JFK and then Newark on the way back - all in various stages of decay or renovation.

Don't get me wrong; it's far from perfect over here. Rapid expansion in Asian aviation has led to questions about safety, maintenance and the lack of experienced pilots. And air travel in Indonesia is definitely not for the faint of heart - Lion Air a possible exception.

Thai Airways is badly in need of a fleet upgrade and there's a Cambodian carrier which flies what could be the world's oldest living 737. But at the end of the day, and especially at the beginning of one, I'd still rather be heading for an Asian airport than an American one. The skies just seem to be a little friendlier over here.

Did I mention you don't have to take your clothes off at security and that the flights seem to take off and land pretty much when they're supposed to? Honestly, you have my sympathy.

SEABROOK: That's NPR's Michael Sullivan flying high in the Philippines.

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SEABROOK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.