Safe Flight

Eyes on the skies: Indonesia and aviation safety

Following a succession of deadly crashes, and with the country set to emerge as one of the world’s largest air travel markets by 2020, the pressure is on for Indonesia to focus on aviation safety

Jennifer Meszaros
January 11, 2016
Eyes on the skies: Indonesia and aviation safety
Training: a flight simulator of an Airbus A320 cockpit produced by flight training group CAE, which counts Garuda Indonesia among its customers

Iseemed like 2014 was a nadir for the Indonesian aviation industry, finishing with the tragic crash of Indonesia AirAsia Flight 8501 in December. Yet things arguably got even worse last year.

Just six months after the AirAsia accident, yet another disaster befell the archipelago when an old C-130 Hercules aircraft careened into a neighbourhood in Medan, killing all 122 people on board and several on the ground. The doomed flight was military-owned and -operated, but allegations surfaced that paying passengers were among the deceased, raising concerns over lax controls and regulatory oversight.

Just six weeks later, the country made international headlines again when an ATR-42 smashed into the mountains in the Oktabe area of Indonesia’s eastern Papua province, killing all 49 passengers and five crew members. This flight was operated by Trigana Air Service, a small domestic carrier with a questionable safety record: four crashes and 14 other incidents in the past 20 years.

A police investigation revealed that the flight’s passenger manifest had been doctored by Trigana staff who were allegedly buying tickets under false names before selling them back to customers at a higher price. A separate enquiry discovered that more than half of Papua province’s 54 airports were under minimal management and lacked adequate navigation equipment, such as air traffic control towers and modern weather observation services, forcing pilots to rely on visual cues while flying rather than radar instruments.

Disaster struck for a third time on October 2 when a DHC-6 Twin Otter, carrying seven passengers and three crew members, came down on a mountain range on the island of Sulawesi. All on board died. The flight was operated by Aviastar Mandiri, and it was the airline’s fourth deadly accident since 2008.

Over the past few years, it seems that no sooner is safety getting better in Indonesia than we have a crash, and sometimes that shows just how much further the system needs to improve there.

Ellis Taylor

“Safety is a major issue, and it seems that the Indonesian government is struggling to stay ahead of the fast-growing aviation industry,” said Ellis Taylor, Asia finance editor at Flightglobal, a provider of data and information for the aviation industry.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Indonesia is well on track to become one of the world’s largest aviation markets by 2020. However, safety is seriously lagging. The country has had at least one hull loss every year since 2010, and in a 2014 audit carried out by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), Indonesia was rated below the global average in every category, placing its safety oversight system in the bottom quartile of 187 countries evaluated.

Meanwhile, Indonesia has yet to regain category one status from the US-based Federation Aviation Administration (FAA) – since 2007, it has been in the same league as a handful of nations that are restricted from expanding flights to the US – and the EU continues its blanket ban on 58 out of 62 Indonesian carriers. Only Garuda Indonesia, Airfast Indonesia, Premiair and Indonesia AirAsia are permitted to fly to the EU.

“Safety is going to be a tough issue to tackle, as there are cultural issues that have to be overcome, and an approach where people are able to own up to their mistakes and not be held criminally liable needs to be embraced,” said Taylor.

As a starting point, he suggests that more funding be set aside for the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), which oversees all regulations in the sector in Indonesia. “This would allow the Directorate to increase its surveillance of Indonesian airlines, which should lead to an increase in safety,” he said. “The DGCA also needs to do more research into human factors… as some recent accidents have shown that poor communication between the pilots in an emergency situation has been an issue.”

Beyond this, Taylor believes that the government needs to work more closely with airlines, airports and other stakeholders to come up with a cohesive policy. Aviation trade bodies agree.

“Indonesia needs an aviation masterplan based on global standards,” said IATA director general and CEO Tony Tyler at the association’s Aviation Day in Jakarta last year. “Such a plan should set a common vision for addressing top priorities such as safety, capacity and regulation. And of course it must be followed by real actions.”

Currently, Garuda is the only Indonesian air operator to have achieved IATA’s Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) certification, a globally accepted safety evaluation programme for airlines. The “real actions” alluded to by Tyler should include making IOSA compulsory for airlines attempting to obtain an air operator certificate.

Since 2009, IOSA-registered carriers have continually recorded better safety performances than non-IOSA operators. In 2014, for example, IOSA-certified airlines had just one accident for every 900,000 flights, compared to one accident for every 300,000 flights for those not on the registry.

“For an airline it is a big undertaking, but the rewards, as well as good PR, are commercial,” said Taylor. “IATA rules now mean that if carriers want to interline or codeshare, which is, to send passengers to or from other airlines, then they have to go through IOSA.”

The implementation of IOSA as standard might be the key step, but the pressure is also on to develop sufficient infrastructure. IATA estimates that Indonesia could be serving 270 million passengers by 2034. According to Indonesia’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), 87 million passengers passed through the country’s airports in 2014.

“A key concern is the strain on airport infrastructure… While investment in new airports is vital, in these circumstances airports need to manage over-capacity, expand and modernise existing infrastructure,” said Ilya Gutlin, president of SITA Asia-Pacific, a multinational company that provides IT and telecommunications services to the aviation sector.

Authorities have committed to terminal expansions at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport along with building 62 airports, mostly in eastern parts of the country, over the next five years. However, modern navigation aids, adequate air-traffic control towers, weather-safety equipment and basic airport services are still in short supply.

“A number of airports are operating well above their design capacity, and this is causing major headaches for passengers and airlines,” said Taylor.

A lot of smaller airports also need major upgrades to be able to safely handle jet aircraft and, in some cases, to bring them in line with best practice around safety.

Tony Tyler

“This is where technology can come in and help airports and airlines operate efficiently and to international standards,” added Gutlin. “It maximises the use of existing airport infrastructure and enables efficient passenger processing and improved productivity.”

According to Taylor, part of the answer lies in allowing the private sector to invest in runways, taxiways, buildings and even equipment such as lighting and technology to make operations safer.

In fairness, Indonesia has been moving toward full implementation of Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) for flights above 29,000 feet (8,839m), said IATA’s Tyler. This technology allows countries to set aside radio frequencies so aeroplanes can be tracked by satellite – not just from the ground. ADS-B also allows air traffic control and other aircraft to manage real-time spacing issues and flight path adjustments to avoid inclement weather.

With more than 800 aircraft on order by Indonesian airlines, increased traffic will not only put pressure on airports but also on pilots, air-traffic management and engineers. Still, there are some Indonesian airlines that are flying the flag. In 2014, the Lion group partnered with Airbus to offer flight-training services for its airlines, which include Lion Air, Wings Air and Batik Air. The programme, which was developed in accordance with Airbus and European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) standards, offers a variety of courses, from civil aviation and safety training to comprehensive type rating programmes – specialised pilot training for certain aircraft types – for Airbus and ATR planes.

Garuda Indonesia has a similar, state-of-the-art training centre and works closely with national agencies, international trade bodies and aircraft manufacturers to ensure global standards are met.

“I think the key here is that the government and the industry need to work together to develop a strong training framework for engineers and pilots, and ensure that there are enough people coming through to fill those gaps,” said Taylor.

“In a lot of cases, airlines have gone out to the rest of the world and adopted world’s best practice when it comes to their operations… the Indonesian National Air Carriers’ Association has also done a good job of getting airlines in the country to talk about safety and seek improvement. Overall this seems to be working.” 

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