Flying in Indonesia May Be Hazardous to Your Health

In more than just crash deaths, Indonesia is reaping the price of the 2000 deregulation of its skies without paying adequate attention to the safety of its airlines. An all-time low in confidence in the eyes of global aviation authorities is severely threatening the country’s tourism sector.

European and US airspace was closed last week to Indonesian-registered carriers following a spate of domestic aircraft accidents that generated intense official concern and public attention on air safety. And although Indonesian carriers do not fly to either region, the fear is that tourists considering a holiday in Indonesia may opt out because of the potential travel dangers, costing billions of tourism dollars.

As well they might. The fact is that travel in Indonesia – not only in the air but by ferry or road – can be a risky proposition, and the common denominator is a lack of adequate supervision by authorities, either because of incompetence or corruption. With 17,000 islands, ferries are ubiquitous and virtually all are overloaded. Passenger ferries carry extra freight, and freighters allow passengers to climb on. “The captains of these vessels are looking for extra money, and pay no attention to safety,” said one traveler in his blog.

But it is airlines that have caught the world’s attention. According to Flight International there were only 11 fatal airline accidents worldwide in the first six months of this year, covering all categories of commercial airline operations, including cargo. Two of those involved Indonesian aircraft and killed 123 people. On New Year's Day a Boeing 737-400 belonging to budget carrier Adam Air plunged into the sea, killing all 102 on board. In March, a Garuda Indonesia plane with 140 people on board overshot the runway in Yogyakarta and burst into flames, killing 21.

Deregulation has encouraged scores of new operators, causing a surge in domestic passenger growth of almost 30 percent a year between 2000 and 2005. In 2006, 34 million passengers flew on Indonesian airlines, up from 7.6 million in 2000.

In September 1997 the country was officially rated Category 1 (meeting International Civil Aviation Organization standards) by the US Federal Aviation Administration's International Aviation Safety Assessment Program (IASA). These standards imply adequate monitoring and control of airline operations, aircraft maintenance, pilot training and licensing, and minimum required equipment on aircraft.

With more than 235 million people, Indonesia has 450 airports with profound differences in navigational and landing aids, weather conditions and air traffic density. But despite 48 air accidents in Indonesia in the last decade, 23 of which killed more than 700 people , according to the Aviation Safety Network, the FAA only brought Indonesia's civil aviation procedures back into its spotlight in April this year.

The catalyst was a hastily convened Indonesian government audit of the country's 54 airlines in March, following widespread claims of old and badly maintained aircraft, outdated technology, poorly-trained personnel, poor radar cover, non-compliance with air traffic regulations, lax supervision and bad management practices at airports

The audit ranked carriers in three bands, according to criteria such as surveillance, ramp checks, personnel, department safety, number of accidents and number of serious incidents. Seven airlines fell in the bottom group, category III, deemed as 'least safe'.

These were Batavia, Adam Air, Kartika Airlines, Transwisata Air, Jatayu Airlines and cargo jetliners Tri MG Intra Asia Airlines and Manunggal Air Service. They were threatened with closure unless they improved training and maintenance within three months. Most of the other airlines, including state-owned flag carrier Garuda Indonesia, fell into the middle category, following evidence that certain civil aviation requirements had not been implemented and problems needed fixing.

Others in category II were Merpati Nusantara Airlines, Lion Air, Sriwijaya Air, Wings Air, Indonesia's AirAsia, Mandala Airlines, Pelita Air Service, Riau Airlines, Trigana Air Service and Travel Express Aviation Service. None of the airlines met all the minimum civil aviation safety standards

In April, the US advised its citizens to avoid flying Indonesian airlines, while the FAA downgraded Indonesia's safety oversight from Category 1 to Category 2, citing "serious concerns” over safety.

"Whenever possible, Americans traveling to and from Indonesia should fly directly to their destinations on international carriers from countries whose civil aviation authorities meet international aviation safety standards," the FAA said in a statement. The ruling effectively bans Indonesian carriers from flying to the USA unless they fly foreign-registered aircraft.

In June the government announced that another safety audit had resulted in an upgrade of the safety rating of Garuda to Category 1 from the lower rating three months earlier. Four small airlines had their licenses revoked and five others were suspended for failing to improve safety during the three months between audits.

But the EU nonetheless added all Indonesian carriers to its "safety blacklist", prompting Indonesia to sign a declaration with the International Civil Aviation Organization pledging to do whatever is required to upgrade its aviation safety to meet ICAO standards.

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Budhi Mulyawan Suyitno, director-general of civil aviation at the Transport Ministry, said that the government has failed to submit data on the audit and “many improvements it had made in air safety" to the EU in time.

Transport Minister Jusman Syafii Djamal said that improvements in aviation safety had been made and the EU ban violated ICAO'S principles of fairness and reciprocity, as the decision was unilaterally taken without prior discussion with the government. Djamal said the government asked the EU on June 22 for an opportunity to brief EU officials about the actions Indonesia has taken to improve air transportation safety before the ban was announced. The EU reportedly agreed to meet Indonesian officials but only in October at the earliest.

The ban is certain to reduce the number of foreign tourists expected, projected earlier at six million arrivals for 2007. Travel agents in the 27-nation EU are obliged to point out to would-be visitors that if they fly in Indonesian aircraft to domestic destinations, their insurance would be null and void. They must also sign a statement agreeing not to fly on Indonesian aircraft on transit routes between Jakarta and the resort island of Bali

According to data from the Ministry of Tourism visitors from Europe spend an average of US$1,450 per person per stay, and stay an average of 15 to 18 days in Indonesia. Others, from Singapore, Malaysia, China or Japan, stay an average of 5 to 8 days and spend an average of US$ 500 to US$ 838 per stay.

In 2005 Jakarta banned foreign low-cost carriers from Jakarta, Bali, Medan and Surabaya in an effort to protect Garuda, but the issue of whether Singaporean low-cost carriers will be able to fly to these cities is due to be discussed in further talks later this year.

Sudaryatno, director of the Indonesian Consumers Foundation charges somewhat fancifully in the light of the country’s air record, that the ban might even be part of a move to ruin the reputation of local airlines so that foreign airlines can get a foothold in the country.

Although making no specific mention of Singapore he notes that both the Jakarta and Bali international airports are no longer gateways to Indonesia, having been replaced by Singapore's Changi airport. Should nationalist legislators in Jakarta pick up on the Sudaryatno theory, Singapore’s always precarious relations with Jakarta could be in for a rough ride again.

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