Who the F*&@ is Lion Air?

You may have heard the name Lion Air before, but chances are you’ve never flown the airline, a low cost carrier based in Jakarta, Indonesia. Lion has been known for a few things over its decade-long history; some good and some bad. The bad? Naturally, it’s safety-related. And the good? Well, it’s debatable if it’s good, but Lion Air is known for having the two largest aircraft orders in history. This is one interesting airline.

Lion Air Orders

Operating in Indonesia is no easy task. The frequent stormy tropical weather makes for some challenging flying, especially around the often mountainous terrain. That shouldn’t mean it’s unsafe, but Indonesia has a terrible accident record across most airlines. In fact, all but a handful of Indonesian airlines are on the European Union’s blacklist of airlines you shouldn’t fly for safety reasons. That list includes Lion Air.

Lion Air started flying in 2000, and since that time, it has had 7 accidents, though most avoided fatalities. The most recent was in April when a 2-month old 737 ran off the runway in Bali. Nobody was hurt, but the preliminary report shows some very serious pilot training issues.

The accidents, however, are just the most visible sign of a stressed operation. Lion has struggled with on time performance, only achieving around 65 percent on time in 2011. (I can’t seem to find a more recent report, but hopefully it’s improved by now.) Oh, and there was that whole “pilots with crystal meth” thing.

In other words, this sounds like a lot of Indonesian airlines. You would think this would mean Lion Air was on the ropes, right? Well, we have no idea. It’s a private airline and says nothing about finances, but there are some very public signs that this airline has plenty of cash if it needs it. This is one of the fastest growing airlines in the world. As the airline approaches 100 airplanes in its fleet (including a couple 747s that it uses to fly to Saudi Arabia), it prepares for another… 500+. Yeah, I’m serious.

Last year, Lion Air ordered 230 airplanes from Boeing. That’s an order for 29 more 737-900ERs and 201 737 MAX aircraft. Then this year, it ordered 234 airplanes from Airbus. This time, the order was for 60 A320s, 109 A320neos, and 65 A321neos. This is in addition to the aircraft already on order.

Not quite blown away yet? This airline has its fingers in a million different things. It started a regional airline, Wings Air, back in 2003. This airline is now on track to operate 60 ATR-72s within the next couple years. Last year it said it would launch a private jet company called Space Jet, though I can’t figure out if that actually happened. It’s also said to be working on a pilot training academy.

Just this month, Lion launched a new full service airline called Batik Air in the city of Manado. I’ll admit, I needed a a little help from Google Maps to find Manado. It lies in the northeast of the country, a thousand miles closer to Davao in the Philippines than it is to Jakarta. Manado only has about 400,000 people, but they better be rich for this full service airline to work.

Unfortunately, what’s public is pretty much all we know about Lion Air. The last press release the airline posted on its website was from 2006. And the “Contact Us” link just gives me a server error. This is one strange airline. But in the next few years, it might be one huge, strange airline. There’s no question that Southeast Asia is going to see tremendous growth in air travel, but what role with Lion play? It could be a big player or it could just be a blip on the radar depending upon what happens in the next few years.

[Original photo via Flickr user IMAM HARTOYO/CC 2.0]

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