An air safety watchdog on Saturday grounded all Australian domestic flights of a Tiger Airways subsidiary for the next week, saying the budget airline twice flew under the minimum allowed altitude. About 35,000 passengers are affected, and more could follow if the airline fails to quickly address regulators' concerns.
The Civil Aviation Safety Authority announced that Tiger Airways Australia's entire domestic fleet of 10 airliners was grounded for five business days because continuing flights would pose a serious and imminent risk to air safety.
"We don't have confidence in the ability of Tiger to continue to manage the safety of their operations," safety authority spokesman Peter Gibson said. He said he understood that Tiger was the first national carrier in Australia to have its entire fleet grounded.
Australian Transport Minister Anthony Albanese said 35,000 passengers will be affected. "That is extremely regrettable, but I think the Australian public expects safety to always come first," he told reporters.
Rivals Virgin Australia and Jetstar, a budget subsidiary of Australian flagship carrier Qantas Airways, announced Saturday they would fly additional services to accommodate some of the stranded passengers.
The airline, which entered the Australian aviation market three years ago, alerted passengers in a statement that services will remain suspended until July 9. Fares will be refunded.
"Tiger Airways continues to cooperate fully with the industry regulator and safety underpins our operations at all times," the airline said, adding that it was committed to working with the safety authority to restore service as soon as possible.
Tiger, the fourth-largest domestic airline in Australia, operated between all state capitals and several regional cities. Tiger flights between the Australian west coast city of Perth and Singapore are unaffected.
The grounding is another blow to the bottom line of Singapore-based Tiger Airways Pty. Ltd., and to passenger confidence after weeks of intermittent flight cancellations due to clouds of volcanic ash over southern Australia since Chile's Cordon Caulle volcano began erupting June 4.
Gibson said the airline had twice breached air safety regulations in two weeks by flying under the minimum allowed altitude on approaches to its Australian airport base in Melbourne. The latest breach was on Thursday.
The authority responded to previous safety concerns in March by adding conditions to the airline's license to operate in Australian skies, including improvements to pilot training, fatigue management and maintenance.
The safety authority will await Tiger's response to its concerns before deciding whether to ask the Federal Court next week to continue the suspension. A failure to resolve the issues could lead to the airline's Australian license being permanently canceled.
Tiger is 49 percent owned by national carrier Singapore Airlines Ltd. and 11 percent owned by state-owned investment company Temasek Holdings.
(This version corrects Tiger is Australia's fourth, not third-largest domestic airline)