Aviation safety in Indonesia: clearing up the fearmongering

Aviation safety in Indonesia: clearing up the fearmongering

Initial reaction of foreign media and commenters alike on the Lion Air 610 crash were quick to blame Indonesia's aviation industry for never improving. However, I think they should put down their pitchforks.

So I have a problem. I can't pull myself away from reading the comments section on any websites. I know they're a cesspool of bad takes, but somehow that's not enough for my curiousity to handle.

Yesterday, I went on the internet and I've seen the media coverage by "foreign" media, and often the comments + response see the same pattern:

This is why you shouldn't trust Indonesian airlines.

Or even, this:

When I hear the words 'Indonesia' 'plane', I always associate it with 'crash'.

It's time for me to calm down the fearmongering. I hope I can assure anyone, that despite people's beliefs, there has never been any better time to fly with an Indonesian airline than now.

A dark history

Yes, if we were still living in the late 90s to early 2000s, it's true that Indonesia was probably not that safe of a country to fly in. Even by just looking at this list of aviation accidents in Indonesia, you could tell the situation was particularly bad.

One of the incidents that always stood out to me was the Garuda Indonesia 152 crash in 1997. This was by far the deadliest aviation disaster in Indonesia. An Airbus A300 crashed into the mountains of Aceh on bad weather, killing all 234 lives on board.

This was just the beginning of the downwards spiral that continued on until the mid-2000s. Following a series of incidents, including another one in Fukuoka the previous year, and the murder of human rights activist Munir Said Thalib on board Garuda Indonesia 974 in 2004, the airline fell further in reputation and quality. It was really a difficult time for the nation's flag carrier.

During this time, Indonesia also experienced a boom of budget airlines, making flying accessible to everyone. They were able to drop ticket prices by providing a no-frills experience.

However, the Indonesian government had been too late to respond well to the boom. The lack of strong regulations on the aviation industry led to many budget airlines competing for market advantage at the cost of safety.

One of these airlines was Adam Air, and it is well known for its fair share of issues. Pilots and staff has often reported breaches of international safety regulations. These include overworking pilots, improper maintenance procedures, and the insistence to fly planes despite their lack of airworthiness. The planes that Adam Air had were aging, leased Boeing 737 Classic planes that the airline often advertised as "new".

With the wheels set in motion, experts predicted it wouldn't be long until Indonesia's aviation industry reached a breaking point. And then, in 2007, it finally did.

Adam Air 172

Breaking point

New Year's day, January 2007. Adam Air flight 574 crashed into the seas near Sulawesi, killing everyone on board. Before the crash, several pilots have complained about malfunctions on some critical instruments. Despite this, the airline forced the plane to keep flying.

A month and a half later, 21 February 2007. Another Adam air flight, Flight 172, suffered a hard landing at Surabaya, bending the entire fuselage. This incident put the airline - and Indonesia’s aviation industry in general - further under scrutiny.

And finally, 7 March 2007. Garuda Indonesia flight 200 overran the runway at Adi Sutjipto airport in Yogyakarta and crashed, killing 21 people. Investigations concluded that the pilots were too fixated on bringing the airplane down quickly as it was too high. The pilots then forgot to extend the flaps and slats to the recommended position for landing. This made the plane land way faster than the final approach speed.

Following this string of crashes, the European Union banned all Indonesian airlines from flying into Europe. This was a huge blow to the industry, and it was also a time when the industry realised that something had to change.

Long road to recovery

And so begins an era of long-overdue transformation in Indonesian aviation history.

The government, through the Ministry of Transport, began implementing safety regulations that previously lacked. After the Adam Air 172 incident, all 54 of Indonesia's airlines at that time were told to make some improvements. Adam Air eventually had their airline operators certificate (AOC) revoked in 2008, after maintenance and management issues continue happening.

Garuda Indonesia went on a massive restructuring campaign starting in 2009 to restore their image. The plan did pay off. Within years, Garuda went from a failing flag carrier with poor safety record to a 5-star international airline. It was also among the first airlines to have its EU ban revoked in 2009. Garuda has since become a role model that other Indonesian airlines aim to be, providing unparalleled quality of service to its passengers.

Efforts were also made to improve the infrastructure. New airports, upgrades to existing airports, as well as navigation equipments are ever improved. This also led to the founding of AirNav Indonesia in 2012, a state-run company providing navigation services to the Indonesian skies. These include air-traffic control (ATC) as well as the maintenance of navigation equipments throughout Indonesia.

The National Transportation Safety Commitee (KNKT) has always played a high role whenever incidents and accidents occured, conducting investigations and publishing reports on their website, available for everyone to read.

All of these improvements led to the moment we had long hoped to happen. 2017 was the safest year in Indonesian aviation history. There were no commercial airline accidents that occured during that year. The EU airspace ban was also lifted for all Indonesian airlines starting from 14 June 2018.

Is flying safer than ever?

The road to an accident-free sky in Indonesia is neverending. But with writing this article, I would like to assure you that things have been getting better.

Sure, Lion Air and Adam Air were just a few bad apples (and honestly, Lion Air need to sort their delays out). But compared to the previous decade, the whole industry is better and safer than what it used to be. As I said in the beginning, there has never been any better time to fly in Indonesia than now.

If you have a flight to catch right now, you'd better close this article and head to the airport.

Header image source: The tail section of Air Asia 8501 being carried on top of a rescue ship. (Wikimedia Commons)

Resi Respati

Web developer based in Jakarta, Indonesia.