TIGER Airways could be grounded for at least a month and be forced out of business in Australia altogether after the Civil Aviation Safety Authority revoked its permission to fly, saying the airline posed ''a serious and imminent risk to air safety''.
The unprecedented ruling by CASA on Friday night, at the start of the busy school holiday period, has thrown into turmoil the travel plans of 35,000 people booked on Tiger flights this week.
It is the latest humiliation for the Singapore-owned low-cost carrier, which has a history of safety breaches, pilot fatigue, angry passengers, poor performance and large financial losses.
All Tiger's 10 Airbus A320 jets have been grounded until Saturday - the first time CASA has banned a whole fleet from flying.
The aviation regulator only has the power to ground aircraft for five working days without permission from the Federal Court, but industry analysts believe it will seek the court's approval to extend the ban this week.
The final straw for CASA came on Thursday night, when a Tiger Airways flight from Sydney flew too close to the ground as it approached Avalon Airport.
A similar breach occurred on June 7 as a flight from Brisbane approached Tullamarine Airport.
Just hours before the airline was grounded at 11pm on Friday, a Melbourne-to-Cairns flight was turned back after 90 minutes due to unspecified ''safety issues''.
''It's not so much the mistakes in themselves, the individual mistakes of the pilots, it's the pattern you're seeing of safety issues arising over and over again within the airline,'' said CASA spokesman Peter Gibson.
''The issues kept stacking up and it got to the point where there was too many problems … The risk got too high, so we had to take this action.
''You don't get to this sort of position if the problems are not systemic. It's a pattern of continuing problems within the airline that aren't being addressed in the proper way.''
But Tiger Airways chief executive Tony Davis yesterday rejected the claims, saying the airline had been working ''very closely'' with CASA and he did not accept that it posed immediate risks to safety.
''Clearly we want to make sure that our services are as safe as they possibly can be and clearly when CASA has concerns, we have to take those seriously,'' Mr Davis said.
''But, we think that the specific issues that they've raised with us are still under investigation.''
He said the airline was determined to get back in the air soon.
The fly ban on Tiger is a huge blow to Avalon Airport, which will lose half its weekly business.
Avalon Airport executive chairman David Fox told The Sunday Age: ''Of course it's going to affect us, that's business. I just hope they sort out their differences and get back into the air.''
But Matt Crowe, a Commonwealth Bank analyst, said there was a chance the airline would not recover from this latest crisis.
''It's not the first time the regulator has had safety concerns about Tiger, and safety concerns are dynamite in aviation because people just won't fly. Look at Ansett. Cracks were discovered in their planes, some of them were grounded. They never recovered and in 2001 they folded,'' he said.
Other airlines yesterday made arrangements to help stranded Tiger passengers, with Virgin and Jetstar putting on extra flights and offering discounted tickets. Qantas agreed to make empty seats available on its existing flights for a discounted rate.
But they could not help all 7000 passengers whose Tiger flights were cancelled yesterday.
At Tullamarine Airport, customers revealed a litany of problems with the beleaguered airline in recent days. Nigel Robinson, who was on the aborted Melbourne-to-Cairns flight on Friday night, said passengers had been left in the dark as to what the safety concern was.
Other angry customers said they had been booked onto a ''fictitious'' flight by Tiger's online booking system, then reassigned to a flight which was cancelled.
Tiger's international flights to Singapore, which are run by its parent company, are not affected by CASA's flight ban.
Mr Gibson said Tiger Airways Australia's problems were mainly related to pilot skill and a culture of not checking those skills.
In March, CASA issued a ''show cause'' notice to Tiger over concerns that it was not following proper procedures to ensure passenger safety.