HONG KONG (AP) — The transfixing mystery of the Malaysia Airlines jet that went missing with 239 people on board has unfolded in a region where air travel is undergoing supercharged growth after decades of being beyond the reach of most people.
The still unknown fate of Flight 370, which vanished from civilian radar on a nighttime flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, has riveted the flying public and baffled experts. The backdrop is also compelling even if far removed from the headlines.
Air travel in Asia is surging as the middle class gets bigger, discount airlines proliferate and business ties with the rest of the world deepen. Airports are scrambling to expand as they bulge with passengers and an upstart Indonesian carrier has given Boeing and Airbus their biggest jet orders ever.
The region's economic boom, seeded in the early 1990s by China's embrace of market style reforms, is the underlying reason.
"When you're poor you can't afford to fly," said Andrew Herdman, director general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines. "The big development of the demographics of Asia in the past 20 years has been the sheer number of people who have been lifted out of poverty into that middle income segment" of $10-$100 of disposable income a day.
The International Air Transport Association has forecast airline passengers to grow by 31 percent worldwide between 2012 and 2017. For Asia, that will mean the number of passengers increases an average of 6.3 percent each year, nearly three times as fast at the U.S.
Routes within or connected to China will be the single largest driver of growth, accounting for nearly a quarter of the additional 300 million passengers during those six years.
Whether the Malaysia Airlines jet succumbed to a sudden catastrophe, hijacking or malicious pilot action, it is unlikely to change a two decade trend of ever more travelers, routes and planes.
"People become cautious about a particular airline for a while but you don't see travel patterns change," said Herdman.
Asian demand is a big reason why airlines are on the largest jet-buying spree in aviation history, ordering more than 8,200 new planes from Airbus and Boeing in the past five years. There are now 24 planes rolling off assembly lines each week, up from 11 a decade ago. And that rate is expected to keep climbing.
The bulk of the planes are going to new or quickly-growing airlines that serve the expanding middle class in China, India and Southeast Asia.