Indonesia's Flying Circus      
      Written by Our Correspondent     
      Wednesday, 11 March 2009 

      The country's airlines face an uphill battle to end a European Union 
flight ban 
      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."

      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. 




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