TEN times a week, a Boeing 737 belonging to the Belgian airline Sabena takes off from Bangkok bound for Phnom Penh. The pilot is Belgian, the safety instructions say Sabena, and the aircraft is clearly more used to shuttling Eurocrats to and from Brussels than flying aid workers and entrepreneurs across Indochina.

Only the way in which the Sabena logo has been clumsily painted out on the tail, and 'Kampuchea Airlines' painted in, suggests a change of affinity. Kampuchea Airlines is the latest East Asian carrier to join the expanding aviation industry in the region.

Last Tuesday, the International Air Transport Association (Iata) announced that its members made a net loss of pounds 3bn in 1992. Pierre Jeanniot, director- general of Iata, called for 'concerted action by both airlines and governments' to return the industry to profitability. In East Asia, however, the recession appears hardly to have dented the growth in air travel.

The region has all the attributes necessary for a bouyant air travel market. The economic boom in countries like Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand and Malaysia has fuelled the demand for flights. In an era when Malaysian cars are sold in the UK, and when Malaysia buys an entire British steelworks, it is easy to speculate at future growth prospects.

Asian airlines have expanded at least as fast as the rest of the region's industries, and the traveller is the chief beneficiary. The flag-carriers of Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong are in competition against each other and many other airlines: from the Russian carrier Aeroflot to British Airways and Qantas. The Australian airline has established such a dense network in the region that you would be forgiven for thinking it was a South-east Asian carrier; it offers frequent services around the Bangkok-Hong Kong-Singapore triangle.

Flights from Europe are available on numerous other airlines, including Emirates, Gulf Air and Air Lanka. A return London-Bangkok flight at less than pounds 400 is easy to find.

Taiwan, which has suffered from a shortage of direct links because of diplomatic pressure from the People's Republic of China, is now linked with London. British Airways is precluded from flying to Taiwan, but its new subsidiary, British Asia Airways, has just begun direct flights to the capital, Taipei. In return, Eva Air of Taiwan has started flights to London.

The competition is keeping down prices, but the airlines are hoping to maintain profitablity. 'There's some evidence that airlines are trimming their costs,' says Dan Lala, General Manager of the Far East Travel Centre in London, 'but the quality of service hasn't been affected.'

Everyone has an eye on 1997, when Hong Kong is handed over to China. The British colony is a hub for air travel, and its carrier Cathay Pacific is one of the strongest in the region. Observers believe it is unlikely that China would allow Hong Kong's position in the industry dwindle. Meanwhile, the Chinese national airline is trying to enhance its image. As CAAC, it was never one of the traveller's favourites, but now renamed Air China it is striving to match the standards of service set in the region. On my most recent flight it still had some way to go. But on Kampuchea Airlines, I am happy to report, inflight service is excellent. Belgium can be proud of it.

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