As Indonesia’s middle class and overall population expand, so have the demands of low-cost domestic air travel. Unfortunately, safety incidents continue plaguing the industry.
Most recently, an Indonesian airliner crashed into the sea last week with 189 people on board. The Boeing 737, owned by the low-cost airline Lion Air, went down after taking off from the capital Jakarta. Flight JT 610 was headed for the western city of Pangkal Pinang. There is no sign of survivors. The cause of the crash, which involved a plane that had been in operation since August, remains unclear. It’s the first major accident involving a Boeing 737 Max – an updated version of the 737.
Indonesia’s transport ministry has found faults in two other Boeing 737-MAX 8 jets, including a cockpit indicator display problem, which an analyst warned may be similar to one reported in the crashed Lion Air Jet.
The ministry said it is inspecting 10 of the newly released jets owned by Lion and flagship carrier Garuda, as authorities analyze data from a recovered black box that may help explain why flight JT610 plummeted into the Java Sea last week, killing 189 people.
The pilot on the doomed plane asked to return to Jakarta before the crash, but it remains unclear what caused the accident. Budget carrier Lion Air admitted that the doomed jet had a technical issue on a previous flight — as well its abrupt fatal dive — have raised questions about whether it had mechanical faults specific to the new model. The single-aisle jet, en route from Jakarta to Pangkal Pinang city, is one of the world’s newest and most advanced commercial passenger planes.
The pilot on the plane’s previous flight from Bali requested to return to the airport not long after takeoff. The pilots resolved the problem and continued to Jakarta. Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee said it was interviewing people who flew on the plane the day before the fatal crash. Some reported a frightening, erratic trip.
Lion Air said in a statement that the pilot and co-pilot had more than 11,000 flight hours between them. Three of the crew on board were trainee flight attendants and one was a technician.
The accident resurrected concerns about Indonesia’s poor air safety record which until recently saw its carriers facing years-long bans from entering European Union and US airspace. There were nearly 40 fatal aviation accidents in Indonesia over the past 15 years, according to the Aviation Safety Network. Last week’s crash raised the alarm once again over the safety of the country’s airlines. It is the worst air disaster in Indonesia since a Garuda Indonesia plane crashed in Medan in 1997, killing all 214 people on board.
It was just in June that Indonesia finally got clearance from the European Union, which removed all of the country’s airlines from its safety blacklist.
That was supposed to mark a major moment for the country’s booming aviation industry, which had for years suffered from a poor safety record. The bloc banned all Indonesia-based airlines from flying in its airspace in 2007 amid a string of accidents and reports of worsening safety standards following the deregulation of the country’s aviation industry in the late 1990s. The US also barred flights from the country’s airlines that year, but raised Indonesia’s safety rating in 2016.
During the blacklist era, Garuda was the only banned airline that flew to the EU.
Lion Air has had a number of incidents including a fatal 2004 crash. Several new carriers capitalized on an explosion in Indonesia’s domestic air travel market. But concerns have been raised about pilot shortages in the industry and growth outstripping Indonesia’s strained regulatory and technical resources.
In addition to crashes, Lion Air was rapped by the country’s aviation regulator in 2016 for running up long delays and other operational problems, including an incident in 2016 when passengers on a flight from Singapore disembarked at the domestic terminal in Jakarta by accident, allowing some passengers to exit the airport without getting their passports stamped.
Other notable accidents in Indonesia include a Garuda Indonesia flight that crashed in Yogyakarta in 2007 killing 21 people, a military aircraft crash in Medan in 2015 that left over 100 people dead, and a Trigana Air crash in Papua that left over 50 dead. AirAsia, a Malaysian carrier that has a good safety record, also crashed in Indonesia en route from Singapore in 2015, killing all 162 people on board.
Pilots who use drugs—including two Lion Air pilots who tested positive for crystal meth in 2012—have also been a worry in Indonesia. Those incidents have not stopped Indonesians from taking to the skies in huge numbers. The country is the world’s fifth-largest domestic aviation market, with domestic passenger numbers more than tripling since 2005. A surge in foreign visitors to Indonesia, in particular to Bali, has also helped fuel the aviation boom.
“The growth of the industry here has happened too fast,” Mr. Sudibyo said.
Indonesia is the fourth-largest nation in the world with more than 267 million people. The country is comprised of more than 17,500 islands, including Bali, Borneo, Lombok, Sumatra and Sulawesi. Learn more about Indonesia.