Indonesia's Woeful Air Safety Record

The Russian Sukhoi Superjet-100 that smashed into a jagged cliff near Indonesia’s Mount Salak Wednesday, killing all 45 people aboard, is the latest in a long line of air crashes in what has been called one of the world’s worst air safety systems.

The first commercial crash occurred in 1950 when a Garuda Indonesia Airlines C47 crashed on landing at Surabaya-Jaunda Airport, killing two people. A steady drumbeat of crashes has occurred since – a total of 113 fatal crashes that, with the loss of the Sukhoi, so far have totaled 2,284 dead. In the last year alone, a Nusantara Buana Air flight flew into a mountain near Bohorok in Sumatra on Sept. 29, 2011, killing all 18 aboard, and a Chinese-made Xian MA-60 operated by Merpati Nusantara crashed into the sea on May 7, 2011, in poor visibility near Kaimana-Utarom Airport, killing 25.

There were plenty of non-fatal accidents as well. A Sriwijaya Air Boeing 737 attempting to land in heavy rain at Yogyakarta Airport ran off the end of the runway on Dec. 20, 2011, with the right hand main and nose gear collapsing. Many of the 131 passengers were injured although nobody was killed. In November 2010, a Lion Air Boeing 737 ran out of runway when the thrust reverser failed to operate and the plane sustained major damage to its engines, nose landing gear and belly area.

With 17,500 islands, 922 of them permanently inhabited according to the CIA Factbook, air travel is crucial to the country it is impossible to move around it with any speed without flying. The sea transport system is equally shambolic, with regular ferry capsizings as well.

Accordingly, as the country has grown more prosperous, more people are taking to the air. The Transport Ministry in 2011 reported that passenger traffic was increasing at a 15 percent annual pace. There are at least 57 airlines including charter services, with about 7,000 pilots.

Albert Tjoeng, a Singapore-based spokesman for the International Air Travel Association, said it is too early to speculate what went wrong aboard the Sukhoi – whether it was pilot error, problems with guidance from air traffic controllers, or other issues. Authorities in Indonesia are searching for the craft’s black boxes, the indestructible records of the last few minutes of air flight. The Transportation Ministry on Thursday said there was no breach of regulation in the Sukhoi’s demonstration flight.

There was no indication of trouble from the plane. The pilots – both experienced test pilots -- asked permission 21 minutes into the flight to descend from 3,000 meters to 1,800 feet in a tour to demonstrate the attributes of the Russian-made passenger plane for dignitaries, journalists and Russian officials. Then it suddenly disappeared.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has ordered an investigation into the cause of the crash. Whether that is an indication of concern that problems with Indonesian guidance systems might have been involved is unknown.

In 2007, following a Garuda Boeing 737 crash at Yogyakarta Airport that killed 31 people, the then-director general of Indonesian civil aviation, Budhi M Suyitno, told reporters that his country had what he called a woeful safety record. For every million flights across Indonesia, Suyitno said, there were 3.77 fatal flights against a global average of 0.25. Suyitno called it a “never-ending struggle" to identify safety hazards and improve the aviation culture e of Indonesia.

"As an island nation aviation is critical to connect and unite our people," Suyitno said In the same year, an Adam Air 737 somehow strayed hundreds of kilometers off course, crashing into the sea and killing 102 people as the crew apparently focused their attention on an inertial navigation system problem and, according to the International Air Safety Network, “neither pilot was flying the aircraft.”

That rash of accidents spurred a devastating 2007 report by the International Civil Aviation Organization that listed a litany of shortcomings in the government’s administration of air safety, finding that there was a shortage of technical staff within the Indonesia Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), and that “the funding provided by the state is insufficient to allow the DGCA to fulfill its safety oversight responsibility.”

Among many other problems, the report said there was an insufficient number of licensing officers to direct air traffic controller licensing, that the secretariat had not addressed the issue of dangerous goods carriage, that there was a shortage of staff to oversee air traffic management, that charts were missing pages or omitted outright.

All Indonesian carriers were banned from flying into the European Union for six years as a result of the shortcomings as Indonesian officials struggled to clean up the mess. In 2009, the ICAO issued a checklist indicating Indonesia had addressed many of the problems although several remained “in progress.” Repeated trips by EU officials to Jakarta to test out the industry’s safety problems met with failure.

In 2011, Garuda Indonesia was given permission to fly back into Europe and the IATA issued a statement in support of the country’s efforts to address the safety issues.

Six other airlines have since been given permission as well. Since that time, the country has made continuing progress in attempting to repair its reputation despite the crashes. Last year, at least four pilots from Lion Air were arrested on suspicion of possessing crystal methamphetamine, however, raising additional concerns about air safety.