Indonesia's Flying Circus

To say Indonesia's air travel industry has had a bad month is an understatement of astonishing proportions. On March 10, the ministry of transportation grounded all of the country's ageing McDonnell Douglas MD-90 passenger jets after a Lion Air flight skidded off the runway in a driving rainstorm at Jakarta's Sukarno-Hatta Airport.

It was the third major incident involving commercial aircraft in less than a month, and came after 21 months in which the country's carriers strived mightily to stay clean. The current series of mishaps began, unfortunately, on Feb. 24, the day a European Union audit team arrived to see if the industry was safe enough to lift a two-year-old ban on Indonesian aircraft flying to Europe. Another ageing Lion Air MD-90 was unable to lower its nose gear at Batam's Hang Nadim Airport and skidded in on its nose.

Then, on March 1 — the same day the inspectors flew home after conducting their audit — a Batavia Air Boeing 737 carrying 125 passengers lost contact with air controllers and navigation capability over Kalimantan and was forced to circle for an hour while the pilots tried to figure out where they were. Amazingly, nobody was killed in any of the incidents, although several were hospitalized briefly for trauma.

The ministry last week fired its air chief, Budi Suyitno, who had been brought in two years ago to try to put the system back together in the wake of a spate of crashes and other incidents that culminated in the ban in 2007 after Marwoto Komar, the pilot of a Garuda Indonesia Boeing 737, came in too hot in Yogyakarta without the flaps down, bounced it down the runway and through a fence and into a rice paddy, where it caught fire and killed 21 people.

Komar is now on trial for criminal negligence, which has kicked off a revolt among pilots and air controllers, who said they feared they could be targeted for criminal action in the event of a crash. Some 30 air traffic controllers have quit, according to the Indonesian Air Traffic Controllers Association, and left to look for jobs elsewhere. Twenty-four of them have reportedly gone to Middle Eastern countries.

Budi Suyitno didn't help his case much when, after the Feb. 24 incident, he was quoted in the local media as saying the MD 90 "is an old plane that could have hidden defects that inspectors couldn't identify. The older the plane, the more the problems. The risk is always there and for the Lion Air incident, the problem was that one of the levers for the wheel hatch was broken, which caused the plane's forward landing gear to stick." The lever, he said, was "at a place where it is difficult to find by the inspectors."

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That seemingly fatalistic approach to air safety apparently was too much for the European Union. Although European officials have made no statements about Indonesia's safety standards, an anonymous Indonesian transport ministry official said Suyitno's ouster was at least one price Indonesia would have to pay for reinstatement. With three relatively serious incidents in three weeks, nobody is giving odds on a reversal of the ban.

As an indication of the condition of the country's airlines, the day the inspectors arrived, Jakarta newspapers carried a quarter-page advertisement congratulating them for having made it for an entire year without a fatality.

Despite his ouster, local aviation observers give Suyitno credit for pushing new, tighter regulations through the Indonesian parliament and increased the supervision of safety and compliance. The ministry has introduced a ranking system to check airline performance. It has given inspectors the right to ground planes. But the best regulations in the world don't guarantee that inspectors will refuse bribes to overlook substandard maintenance, or that politically powerful owners won't can't force inspectors to refuse bribes to overlook inadequate maintenance reports.

Aviation is crucial to transport in Indonesia, a sprawling country of 235 million people inhabiting 9,000-odd islands. Without air travel, the country's economy would be seriously hampered. But starting in 2001, when the country's budget airline industry took off, a plethora of airlines was launched, many of them with dubious connections to political figures. At one point there were 19 scheduled airlines and 36 nonscheduled ones before the government started weeding them out.

Critics say the low air fares compromised passenger safety as the owners bought elderly jets, flouted safety standards and ignored the existing regulations. An Adam Air Boeing 747 that crashed in 2007, killing everybody on board, was 18 years old and had carried the livery of eight other airlines before it ended up at Adam Air, which was partly owned by Agung Laksono, the speaker of the Indonesian Parliament. The airline was put out of business.

In the decade up to 2007, there were 48 air accidents, 23 of which killed more than 700 people, according to the Aviation Safety Network. The International Civil Aviation Organization later singled out 121 defects in the country's aviation safety system, including the lack of aircraft surveillance and the inability of inspectors to ground defective planes. The US Federal Aviation Agency issued a statement that " 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."

That ruling also effectively banned Indonesian carriers from flying to the USA unless they flew foreign-registered aircraft.

Despite the continuing effort to clean up the air traffic system, it remains to be seen whether the three serious incidents of the last three weeks were an aberration, as Lion Air and Indonesian government officials claim, or whether they remain a troubling symptom of a system that doesn't work.

The EU is supposed to issue its audit sometime in April. It is not reassuring to know that Lion Air's MD-90s, three of which remain in operation after losing the two to crashes, have been grounded, but for only the rest of the week despite a call by Transport Minister Jusman Syafel Djamal to ground the ageing aircraft for good. In addition, Haryanto Rasmani, the captain and pilot who took the latest Md-90 into Jakarta's airport in the middle of a torrential rainstorm, will be on the ground for only a month.