Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Indonesia's air safety record on the nose again after Air Asia crash

By Lauren Gumbs

Over the Christmas and New Year's break, the Air Asia crash gave jet setters another reason to fear flying in Indonesia - a plane could drop unforeseen from the sky like a stone taking every one of its 162 passengers into the sea with it in a tragic mystery.

Even more worrying is the news that Air Asia QZ8501 Surabaya to Singapore was flying without a permit to use the airspace.

Djoko Murjatmodjo, acting director general of air transportation said all flights between Surabaya and Singapore have been banned and the ministry has issued a directive ordering all airlines to provide pilots with up-to-date weather reports before they take off.

In Indonesia, it is the captain and co-pilot's responsibility to research and evaluate flying conditions before departing, yet in other countries, the carrier’s flight operations department normally attends that task.

How often and how rigorously pilots research weather conditions before routine flights is probably less than comforting, particularly in a tropical place like Indonesia, where snap weather changes and heavy turbulence are standard.

Likely also incredibly unsatisfactory given Indonesia's air safety record as rated by UN auditors last May was a woesome 61 per cent.

In fact, insurance premiums for passengers on Indonesian flights are double the global average because of its poor safety history.

The Air Asia tragedy on 28 December was not only an indictment of safety and regulatory conditions in Indonesia's fast growing aviation sector, but of how such a situation is handled by authorities and the media.

Initially, some sections of the Indonesian media acted like sharks on a carcass towards confused and distressed family members, harassing them just to feed an endless reel of breaking news without any relevant content.

Then, in a blatant breach of journalistic ethics, floating bodies of the plane's passengers were broadcast across screens before the family members were officially and tactfully informed.

While it is not uncommon for Indonesian newspapers and television media to employ graphic images of victims of crime and road accidents, such ethical indifference was a shock in the case of the Air Asia crash. 

The Indonesia Institute's Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and Director of Social and Political Affairs, Mr Colin Singer, said TV One and Metro had a field day harassing grieving passengers and relatives, which was possible because Surabaya Airport and the government authorities did not make private assembly space available. 

"In addition to being exposed to media personnel, the lists of missing passengers was displayed openly on the Surabaya main concourse," Mr Singer said.

"Unfortunately the grieving relatives were easily accessed for questioning and became fodder for Indonesian TV viewers."

The search and rescue operation, led by Basarnas (Indonesia's National Search and Rescue Agency), got off to a slow start prompting memories of the Silk Air 185 disaster where the investigation took years to be completed and failed to be published transparently.

Like Silk Air 185, tensions with Singapore are still evident, with the transport minister saying he would not 'bow down to Singapore' in considering the legitimacy of the two countries conflicting route permits.

Mr Singer said during the Silk Air investigation the authorities were supposedly concerned about harming the relationship with Singapore and did not undertake a rigorous investigation.

"Instead, they ended up reporting that the crash was due to unspecified mechanical failures, despite it widely believed that the pilot had committed suicide."

"The Air Asia case got off to such a shaky start it looked like turning into another less than satisfying investigation.

"Basarnas waited until it was already dark to accept assistance from Singapore, because although the area is within Indonesian air traffic control territory and air/sea rescue, Indonesia has a search and rescue department but few facilities; (sama sama lost Malaysian MH370 aircraft) apart from a single boat, it has no helicopters, aircraft and other resources.

"Despite such limitations, Indonesia has specific international obligations to undertake prompt search and rescue missions and they promised after the Malaysian incident that they would respond more appropriately."

While the first 24 hours were excruciating, Basarnas stepped up and quickly deployed specialist teams to co-ordinate with the Indonesian navy and air force as well as Russian and American naval ships to locate missing parts of the wreck.

In this, they acted acted decisively and co-operatively to seek help where needed and to communicate their findings promptly to the public.

Despite well resourced rescue teams, with up to 80 divers deployed to search the wreckage, due to difficult weather conditions the mission's teams have managed to salvage only 37 bodies.

Singaporean and Australian experts have been called in to help with identification of the bodies as the search for answers continues.

Pings were recently detected from the plane's black box which may finally deliver the extra information that will shed light on the reasons behind the crash.

Air Asia is remaining quiet on the speculations, saying only that the information will eventually come to light, but for the meantime a tropical storm is cited as the main culprit.

Aviation experts are critical that the crash is purely due to a storm and say investigations should ask why the plane was in such and area when it has the tools to scan for and avoid storm cells.  

However at this stage expert opinion remains contradictory and there is simply not enough evidence to form a conclusive story.

Pressure should be focused on ensuring the aviation industry is overhauled to adhere to strict safety guidelines and that regulating the modern reality of increased, low budget air travel is a priority.

In light of the scale of the tragedy the Indonesian government has no choice but to respond, and with a casualty rate 25 times higher than the US, it should be making strong moves to crack down on Indonesia's troubled aviation industry.

The budget airline market is operating in a climate of high growth and tight competition and this, combined with a lack of oversight, has created ongoing safety issues that can no longer be ignored.

In 2007, the European Commission banned all Indonesia-based airlines from flying to the European Union after a series of accidents, but since then Garuda and Air Asia Indonesia were given permission to recommence flights.

If Indonesia's poor aviation system had a role to play in the Air Asia crash, it would reflect an unacceptably low regard for safety, management and administration.

The transport ministry is working on an audit into scheduling of flights in the domestic aviation industry after it was found that the Air Asia flight was not authorised to operate that route, Surabaya to Singapore, on Sundays.

It also sacked a transport ministry official and is taking disciplinary action against several others for allowing the flight.

Regular Indonesian jet-setters are familiar with constant delays and mismanagement of flight schedules, but the real anxiety kicks in on turbulent flights when the A380s drop and bounce along Indonesia's extreme air currents as if made of plywood.

There are often gasps, muttered prayers and shrieks as passengers tighten their seatbelts, hold their children close and recall media reports of the most recent crash or plane that missed the runway and skidded off.

It remains to be seen how effective public pressure can be to demand better organised, safer flights and emergency response.

But it will be hard to shut out the images of floating bodies from Air Asia QZ8501 the next time bad turbulence rocks what is ultimately a vulnerable and fragile machine. 

Lauren Gumbs is the Indonesia Institute's Blog Editor and Director of Social Media. She holds a Masters degree in Communications.


  1. "Those of you who have traveled around Indonesia by plane will understand the chaos and anxiety of waiting several hours in the heat and haze of kretek smoke for a delayed flight.

    The writer of the above comments obviously hasn't traveled by air in Indonesia for many years and is comparing the modern airlines in Indonesia, such as CitiLink, Sriwijaya, Garuda et al with the old Merparti airline.
    Nearly all reliable airlines like CitiLink etc depart ON TIME.
    Also 99.9% of all Indonesian airport terminals are NOW SMOKE FREE.

  2. I think this article is really good. A big investigation is needed into airlines in Indonesia.

    Bandung, West Java

  3. Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for your comments. I lived in Indonesia between 2007 and 2013 and and I used the airlines frequently. Although a law came into effect in 2005 for all restaurants, hospitals, airports, and government offices to become smoke free, this has been loosely and half heartedly followed. The perimeter of any of these places is riddled with smoke and you will be well aware that even in the domestic airport in Jakarta people smoke not only in the cafes but in the section between gates as well as the walkways. In my experience 99.9% of terminals being smoke free has not yet been accomplished.

    Delays remain endemic and cripple efficient, convenient flights. Garuda is the most reliable and professional, but the budget airlines are lagging. I lost count of the number of times I myself have been stuck in Palembang, Surabaya, Malang, Bali or Jakarta with tired kids and a two or three hour delay and multiple gate changes. My husband traveled through almost every airport in Indonesia and experienced the full breadth of the system's failings but even his six years of constant air travel cannot top the experiences of my disabled uncle. I cannot accept that 'nearly all' 'reliable' airlines are on time and I think that consumer tolerance has contributed to poor services and a lack of pressure on airlines to lift their game.

    Indonesian domestic airlines have significant problems with scheduling and co-ordination and Indonesian passengers need to make sure they voice their concerns. It is important that silence is not regarded as implicit consent for inadequate services.