WHY did Lion Air JT610, operating a near-new Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, crash just 13 minutes after take-off from Jakarta on Monday?
Could the incident have been prevented and the lives of the 189 people on board saved?
Why did Lion Air declare the aircraft airworthy despite complaints by pilots of technical problems, including an issue with “unreliable airspeed”, during its previous flight? Prior to its ill-fated journey from Jakarta to the tin-mining town of Pangkal Pinang on Monday, Flight JT610 flew the Bali-Jakarta route, during which these red flags were raised.
The questions above remain unanswered for now as investigators try to piece together the tragic narrative that has been dominating Indonesian and world headlines this week.
That’s because air disasters aren’t daily events. Neither are they monthly.
Modern air travel has become remarkably safe, safer even than travelling by car or even rail as experts would say. Over the past five years, statistics show that the rate of air disasters involving lives have dropped from one out of every 1.5 million departures (2013) to one out of every 7.5 million (2017).
But the tragedy involving Lion Air is in the spotlight for a different reason: Indonesian aviation’s chequered past.
It was just in August 2016 that airlines from the archipelago were allowed back into US airspace. Then in June this year, the European Union lifted a similar ban, instituted in 2007.
For Indonesian airline players, the reprieve came as a massive relief – and an opportunity for more business.
With economic development fuelling interest in domestic travel and a surge in foreign visitors to its 17,000 islands, Indonesia’s air travel business has grown impressively. According to World Bank numbers, air traffic jumped from 27 million in 2009 to 88.6 million in 2015 – a 330 percent increase – and these numbers have continued to surge.
For local players, this has triggered a need for more aircraft – according to reports, Indonesian airlines are among the biggest purchasers of new aircraft.
This year, Lion Air alone placed an order for 50 of Boeing’s 737 MAX 10 jets – the same aircraft that crashed Monday. Wall Street Journal reports that the airline ordered over 200 planes from Boeing in a 2011 arrangement that is the aircraft maker’s biggest ever commercial deal to date.
Indonesia is now the world’s fifth largest domestic market after US, China India and Japan, and with its aircraft orders, is expected to contribute some US$30 to US$40 billion to the global economy.
But as air travel demands boom both domestically and internationally, concerns have been raised on the local industry’s ability to find sufficient talent to help it cope with the rapid growth. Industry observers have said the Indonesian government needs and lacks the political will to ensure human safety is the priority of its airline players – not the pursuit of profit margins.
Aviation expert Shukor Yusof says in Aerotime that the government should provide more funds to upgrade airports and to train aviation personnel on the importance of safety.
Separately, International Air Transport Association spokesman Albert Tjoeng is quoted saying:
“The expected market growth, as well as the social and economic benefits, is by no means guaranteed. The infrastructure – both airport and air traffic control – needs to have the capacity to handle the expected growth.
“Having trained personnel to support the expected travel demand is equally important.”
But these are words easier said than done. According to the Aerotime report, Indonesia’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation, a regulatory body under the Transport Ministry, is understaffed.
Without manpower, it is unlikely able to provide the kind of granular supervision needed on airlines, training providers, aircraft MRO (maintenance, repair and overhaul), among other matters.
These shortcomings are only worsened by the uncertainty over who, or which agency, shoulders the weight of responsibility in the development of local aviation and adherence to international safety standards.
It is also the possible reason behind the country’s terrible safety record – data from the Aviation Safety Network say over the past 15 years, there were nearly 40 fatal accidents and over 100 incidents recorded in Indonesia.
(See timeline below for a list of Indonesia’s worst air disasters from 1990).
By contrast in neighbouring Malaysia, which has on its track record the highly-controversial disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in 2014, there have been fewer than a dozen incidents since 2001, and a couple of fatal accidents.
As the Lion Air disaster continues to unravel – at the time of writing, reports are saying that searchers have uncovered the aircraft’s black box – it remains to be seen how Indonesia’s aviation industry, and the government, will respond to this latest tragedy.
While the country has come a long way in recent years with regards to air safety measures – and this is immediately reflected in its airlines’ removal from US and EU blacklists – what remains clear is more needs to be done. And immediately.
The sacking of Lion Air’s executives over the latest tragedy and Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s directive to the Transport Ministry to “improve our safety management” are merely band-aid solutions to treat the symptom, not the problem.
This article was put together at 12pm, local time.