Aviation worries


Economic News

22 Jul 2010
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An inquiry into the 2007 New Year's Day Adam Air crash off Sulawesi has revealed worrying lapses in standards in the Indonesian aviation sector. The crash, which killed all 102 people on board, was found to be caused by a combination of instrument failure and human error. Investigators catalogued a list of failures in proper safety procedure leading up to the crash.

Adam Air was established in 2003 as a low-cost airline concentrating mainly on domestic flights. Prior to the 2007 crash it was the fastest growing low-cost carrier in Indonesia. The airline was founded by parliamentary speaker Agung Laksono and businesswoman Sandra Ang, and named after her son, CEO Adam Adhitya Suherman. Following further safety concerns, Adam Air was grounded on March 18 this year, although it had already announced insolvency only days earlier.

The details that have emerged about the last minutes of flight DHI 574 - a scheduled service between Surabaya, East Java, and Manado, North Sulawesi - are truly alarming. The two inexperienced and poorly trained pilots attempted to reset their malfunctioning navigation system in stormy weather, all the while failing to notice that they had accidentally disengaged the Boeing 737-400's autopilot. The flight lost 25,000 feet in just over a minute, before crashing into the sea.

Logs for the plane showed that pilots had registered problems with the navigation system 154 times in the three months preceding the crash. Moreover, the pilots of flight 574 were attempting to reset the instrument using a manual downloaded from an unauthorised website. Investigators further discovered that senior pilots at the airline had no idea how the aircraft's Inertial Reference System (which maintains the autopilot's bearings) worked.

Worries about the safety of Indonesia's aviation sector have persisted for a number of years. Following privatisation in the 1990s the sector enjoyed a boom in new carriers, with 51 different companies currently registered as providing flights. However, the necessary regulatory infrastructure has been lacking, and navigation in particular has suffered from a boom in commodity prices.

Speaking shortly after last year's crash, Air Transport World Senior Editor Geoffrey Thomas described the challenge facing Indonesia and other emerging economies - "The issue is that the parts that make up the navigation aid, the copper components, are very valuable and locals do pilfer this equipment, to sell, to feed their families".

A raft of further incidents - including a further fatal accident last March - has resulted in all Indonesia's carriers being banned by the EU. Although largely a formality (none fly in European airspace anyway), the measure is still a damning indictment of the sector. The Indonesian government is currently working hard to fast-track the removal of the ban on four carriers, including the flag carrier, Garuda, which has already achieved the International Air Transport Association standard and the Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) certificate. Mandala Airlines is also committed to completing the IOSA accreditation process by this summer. The latter, which is based on the standards set out by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, should be sufficient to see the EU ban lifted.

Observers say that the government is partly faulty. Accusations of corruption regarding the awarding of licences in the burgeoning sector have been leveled at politicians, and ministerial response has often been described as ineffective. For example, Transport Minister Hatta Rajasa responded to safety criticism by announcing a plan last month to ban local operators from flying jets more than 10 years old. Industry analysts say the concern is not the age of aircraft, but rather their poor maintenance.

"The big problem that confronts Indonesia is not so much the age of the aircraft, although they have a lot of very old aircraft. It is the way they are flown, it is the lack of recurrent training, it is the lack of flight standards," said aviation writer Ben Sandilands.

The real issue probably has less to do with corruption than inadequate regulation. The current rules for establishing an airline require only two aircraft and the crews to man them. There are suggestions that the minimum entry level should be increased to five in order to create a more effective barrier to entry.

In an attempt to remedy the situation the Indonesian government is seeking help from Australia, which has recently provided $22m for training, and the International Civil Aviation Organisation. There are some early signs that, at the level of basic infrastructure, things may be moving in the right direction. Earlier this month the Indonesian Directorate General of Air Transportation received the 2008 Jane's Air Traffic Control Global Award for enabling technology, for their installation of an ADS-B aircraft tracking system.

Most important though will be the establishment of better monitoring of the industry. Budi Suyitno, director general of Air Transport, told press that the government was attempting to improve regulation by "transferring a number of ill-disciplined inspectors to desk jobs". "Safety wasn't part of the culture, now it is," he added.

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