Efforts to avoid air disasters

20
Chappy Hakim Chief of Staff of the Air Force 2002-2005 and Author of “Tanah Air Udaraku Indonesia”

 Another crash in Indonesia, at the advent of 2021, as Sriwijaya Air Flight SJ-182 fell into the sea just minutes after takeoff. The Boeing 737-500 was completely destroyed and none of the crew or passengers survived. Indonesia mourns a fatal air disaster … yet again. 

David Owen, an aerospace engineer, stated in his Air Accident Investigation that “Statistically, flying as an airline passenger means you are traveling using one of the safest modes of transport available. For each accident, from petty accidents to major disasters, there are millions of safe and smooth flights.” 

Last week’s Sriwijaya Air flight incident again brought up questions concerning just how safe aviation in Indonesia is. This is a crucial matter, as only recently we were declared to have successfully re-entered American Federal Aviation (“FAA”) Administration Category 1 (“Meets ICAO Standards”). FAA’s categorization is in line with the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (“ICAO”) standards. 

ICAO’s latest audit of the Indonesian airline industry ironically shows that our civil aviation safety rate is above the world average. This is a proud achievement obtained after being stuck in a shameful position for some 10 years. With two fatal accidents occurring so soon after Indonesia’s aviation is declared to even exceed the global average, it is entirely logical if people then start to question what is happening. 

Let’s take a brief look back to note how aviation has evolved in Indonesia. Within the past two decades, Indonesia has achieved great growth in the number of air transport passengers – a fantastic growth rate of 10% to 15% per annum. This phenomenon occurred in response to liberated regulations for establishing airlines. Aviation entrepreneurs somehow managed to profit from the momentum of the 9/11 tragedy in the US in 2001, which saw a high number of airplanes for sale and/or lease at extremely low prices in the world market. 

The number of passengers increases with the increasing number of airlines that promoted themselves with cheap air tickets. The number of new airlines itself increased in turn, causing unhealthy cooperation in the form of price wars over the many offers of “low-cost carrier” service. 

During this period, two new regulations attempted to bring order to the volatility of air ticket prices in the country: First, the age of the airplanes that airlines can use; and second, the top and bottom limits of ticket prices. This was when many people enjoyed extremely low airplane fees – so cheap that they become equal to, or even cheaper than, the fees for using land and sea transport. 

Unfortunately, people do not realize that the rapid growth in the number of passengers because of cheap ticket prices was not supported by the necessary aviation infrastructure and HR. There was simply no time, money or inclination to prepare qualified aviation professionals through education and training in Aviation Business in the most important fields, Airport and Airline Business. This unbalanced growth in our national aviation caused many aircraft incidents, including crashes, resulting in the backlash of rages and cancelled flights, ultimately resulting in the bankruptcy of our airlines. One of the “victims” of the situation was senior airline Merpati Nusantara Airlines (“MNA”). 

In 2019, the flying public was shocked by the extreme increase in airplane ticket prices. The rise was illogical, as the ticket prices for domestic routes was actually higher than the prices for international flights. People lost their “low-cost carrier airline” convenience as ticket prices were no longer “low”. This marked the end of the price war period, as many airlines went bankrupt and only those who could survive remained. With the much-reduced number of airlines, pricing wars that provided extremely low ticket prices were no longer needed for them to get passengers. Ticket prices automatically rose. Furthermore, aviation fuel prices rose simultaneously at the same time as the rise in dollar exchange rates – all of which occurred exactly as the holiday peak season. Naturally, the accusation that airlines performed oligopolistic manipulations of ticket prices flew hard and fast. 

Most of the people are not aware that their own greed in traveling on the cheap, combined with aviation entrepreneurs’ greed to cash in on easy aviation permits, they skimped out on safety and this resulted in a high incidence of airplane crashes and passenger deaths. This was why Indonesia was deemed to be no longer compliant with ICAO aviation safety requirements, and were thus banned from European and American airports. 

Among ICAO’s many findings when they inspected the low level of aviation safety in Indonesia at the time is that there was – is – a grave lack of aviation inspectors, both in terms of quantity and quality. They also found the fact that the inspectors of our national aviation authority inspectors were paid very poorly. It is obvious that the high incidence of airplane crashes in Indonesia is caused by insufficient infrastructure, qualified HR, and the quality of our monitoring mechanism. The National Commission on Transportation Safety (Komite Nasional Keselamatan Transportasi – “KNKT”) confirms this through their own investigation of these accidents. 

The Aviation Law of 2009 notes that we need to establish a separate Court for aviation-related incidents to follow up on KNKT’s final reports in the context of stipulating necessary corrective actions. This is a logical need, as so many KNKT recommendations remain ignored instead of being followed up for years. Unfortunately, such a Court remains on paper instead of being real. 

To conclude from the above description, we need to immediately take at least the following two actions to prevent further fatal aviation accidents involving Indonesian airlines: First, reorganizing and strengthening strict monitoring mechanisms for aviation operations; second, establishing professional aviation councils that can forward KNKT reports to national aviation authorities. 

I need to reiterate the importance of monitoring aviation operations and profession. The importance of establishing such forums will force aviation businesses to be thorough and careful and held avoid incidents from the root up. This matter becomes even more critical now, a time when the aviation industry has been strongly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has forced whole armadas of airplanes to be grounded and remain idle for a long time, and allowed only a few pilots, mechanics, technicians, and airport staff to continue working. 

Let us accompany our prayers, offered in mourning for those aboard Sriwijaya Air flight SJ-182, with actual effort to prevent further fatal aviation accidents in Indonesia. 

Amen.