The High Risk of Travel in Indonesia

The discovery on the sea bottom Monday off West Sulawesi of what is believed to be the wreckage of a Boeing 737-400 that crashed on New Year’s day dramatically points up Indonesia’s astonishingly bad air and sea transport safety record, especially since the turn of the century.

Owned by three-year old budget carrier Adam Air, flight KI 574 was flying at 35,000 feet when it vanished from radar screens at Makassar’s Hasanuddin Airport at 3:07 pm local time on 1 January, with 102 people aboard, including three Americans. The disaster was compounded by an announcement a day later that the craft had been found and that 12 people had been rescued, only to have authorities say the report wasn’t true.

An extensive search for the doomed aircraft over land and sea came up blank until this week if indeed it has been found

Sadly, another transport disaster here is hardly surprising. A fleet of ageing planes operated by cash-strapped carriers and supervised by corrupt officials has experienced 73 accidents since 2001, with a total of 479 victims, including 201 fatalities and 278 injured.

On the sea, during the last week of 2006 at least five passenger boats sank, including the Senopati Nusantara ferry, which went down in rough water in the Java Sea with the loss of more than 400 of the 628 people aboard.

In the case of Flight KI 574, reports now suggest the Indonesian navy has found three metal objects on the sea bed, 1,050 meters down, close to Mamuju, West Sulawesi. The USS Mary Sears, a naval oceanographic vessel with sonar capability and the ability to detect metal underwater, was due to arrive in the area on Tuesday to help identify the wreckage.

A team of six investigators from the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has arrived in Indonesia to help with the search and investigation. Boeing is sending technical assistance "at the request of the investigating authorities." Nonetheless, Indonesia's National Transportation Safety Committee, NTSC, is responsible for any probe and has refused to comment on the cause.

While speculation has centered around bad weather, the fact is that since Indonesia’s budget airline industry took off in 2001, a plethora of airlines have been launched with dubious maintenance standards, sparking fears that the country’s endemic corruption is at least partly responsible for the dreadful safety record. The crowded, competitive market has forced most carriers to cut costs and fares to avoid bankruptcy. There are now 19 scheduled airlines and 36 non-scheduled operators in the country. Profit continues to take priority over safety with tragic consequences.

Critics say that the low airfares have compromised passenger safety. But revisiting an earlier tragic crash illustrates the gravity of the threat to innocent lives and the failure by Indonesia authorities to learn from the past and to absolutely insist on safety first.

On 5 September 2005, seconds into a two-hour, 15 minute scheduled flight from Medan's Polonia Airport to Jakarta, a 24-year-old Boeing 737-230 operated by Mandala Airlines crashed in a densely populated residential area 500 meters beyond the runway. In the ensuing inferno, 150 people were killed 103 on board and 47 on the ground while 15 passengers survived.

Following the Medan crash, officials went into damage control and legislators convened a special parliamentary hearing to discuss airline safety. Transport Minister Hatta Radjasa, who still occupies the position, blamed corrupt officials for allowing safety standards to be flouted and announced that random checks would be carried out to ensure aircraft were being properly maintained.

From December of that year, Indonesian airlines would be required to limit aircraft to a maximum of 30 years service and 50,000 flight hours. Previous regulations set a limit of 35 years and 70,000 flight hours.

Indonesia is rated Category 1 (meeting International Civil Aviation Organization standards) in the US Federal Aviation Administration's International Aviation Safety Assessment Program (IASA). These standards imply monitoring and control of airline operations, aircraft maintenance, pilot training and licensing, and minimum required equipment on aircraft. But the problem lies in enforcement of these regulations and the accompanying checks and tests, in a culture where corruption, to a lesser or greater degree, is the norm.

Radjasa himself told local radio station El Shinta "It's how to implement these regulations without officials who can be bribed. This is what can endanger safety."

Legislators and local commentators questioned safety and maintenance standards for fleets of elderly jets. Though some factions in parliament demanded that all 737-200 series aircraft be banned, for example, the government chose instead to initiate random inspections of aircraft on the ramp and in maintenance hangars.

"Most local carriers operate this type of aircraft [Boeing 737] and they have the highest accident rates, but we will not ground all of the planes," Radjasa said.

This seemed a sensible approach, given that most aircraft crashes have proven to be related to pilot error, faulty maintenance, air traffic control errors or extremely bad weather conditions. On the rare occasions a crash or even a reported incident, is proven to be due to faulty design, a quick change in the design follows, even preceded by a grounding of the global fleet until the fault has been remedied if it has the potential to bring down more of the aircraft type.

Certainly, older aircraft can be operated safely as long as they are adequately maintained. There are about 4,200 Boeing 737s of all series still in service across the world – the most widely flown aircraft in service. The doomed Adam Air Boeing 737 flew for the first time on Jan. 11, 1989 – 18 years ago and had carried the livery of eight airlines. It had flown 45,371 hours and was last evaluated and declared airworthy by the Indonesian transport ministry more than two years ago, on 25 December 2005. Its next check was due in late January.

Jakarta-based Adam Air started operations on 19 December 2003. The company is partly owned by Agung Laksono, the speaker of the Indonesian parliament. Currently its fleet of 19 Boeing 737s operates on 22 routes, including two international sectors: Medan-Penang and Jakarta-Singapore. The company's president-director, 25-year-old Adam Adhitya Suherman, said last month that the airline planned to have about 50 planes in five years.

Most reports describe the carrier as a "budget" airline but the airline's CEO, Gunawan Suherman, told Tempo magazine last week, "Adam Air is not a budget airline. That is what people say. We are a boutique airline. Flying with us means flying with glamour."

But pilots hardly look on Adam Air as glamorous. Seventeen pilots resigned in May 2005 over concerns about aircraft safety, recounting a series of incidents where they disagreed with the airline’s management over the state of readiness of their aircraft. For example, an Adam Air Boeing flying out of Jakarta towards Makassar went off course in February last year, lost communication with the tower before it was due to land, and almost an hour later turned up requesting emergency clearance to land at Tambolaka Airport in Sumba, East Nusa Tenggara province, several hundred kilometers off course.

The disappearance of KI 574 has sparked intense media speculation. Discarding the wildest suggestions that the flight actually disappeared into an Indonesian "Bermuda Triangle", or was downed the use of mobile phones in the air most early conjecture centered around the supposedly bad weather conditions at the time. The aircraft experienced 80 mph winds and storms halfway through the two-hour flight, forcing it to change course at least twice.

And, while there are no suggestions that KI 574 was badly serviced or unsafe, local sources suggest carriers commonly "dumb down" aircraft by disabling the auto brakes and auto throttle to maintain higher utility rates and low turnaround times. This is not a safety issue, per se, but it means more brake and engine changes than normal are needed. Falling yields and the soaring fuel price, the argument goes, may have led to even more drastic cost-cutting measures.

Compensation here for victims also does not even begin to touch the lower limits of a major Western carrier's payouts. Payment for death or disability is only about $5,000 and medical treatment is only up to $2,500. This low level of compensation has increasingly led to the families of victims suing in the United States, where sympathetic juries have delivered up much more lucrative legal settlements.

Sea travel can be equally hazardous. In a little over a week at the end of 2006, facing bad weather conditions, hundreds of people were killed. But a major part of the problem is that corrupt officials allow grossly overloaded ferries and ships without adequate safety equipment to leave harbors. The Indonesian Transport Society (MTI) claims many accidents at sea are caused by overloaded vessels, and there is no real attempt to control passengers boarding ships without tickets.

Many have raised the question of whether the real danger to passenger safety is lax attitudes toward safety in a country prone to frequent major accidents on road, rail and in the air. And given the continuing low value placed on Indonesian lives by transport operators, and by the government’s seeming lack of commitment to improve safety, 2007 is likely to take a high toll yet again.

Asked by a Tempo magazine reporter what really happened to KI 574, Gunawan responded: "It was a weather problem. Everything was OK when the plane took off, except for the X factor. We are not God".