Reorganizing national air transport governance

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

IO – Indonesia is a huge country located very strategically at the very center of the Earth (literally). Its extremely strategic location is due to its position between two oceans and two continents. Indonesia’s other special characteristics is that it is an archipelago – comprised of thousands of large and small islands spread out along the Equator. Furthermore, most of our territory is mountainous. With these characteristics, an air travel network is necessary to ensure that the needs of citizens are adequately covered. It is an important part of logistics administration for the Government as well. Air transport is a primary means for uniting the nation. 

In December 2019, a deadly illness called COVID-19 appeared in Wuhan, China. From there, it spread out extremely quickly throughout the planet. By March 2020, the WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. In response, most countries imposed a lockdown: all traffic between countries was halted, and infected citizens (as well as citizens suspected of being infected) quarantined in order to prevent further spread of COVID-19. New health protocols were imposed: wearing masks, physical distancing, frequent hand-washing, and working from home. 

This lockdown, along with strict quarantine and implementation of health protocols, drastically reduced human traffic at once – including air traffic. The sectors worst hit by COVID-19 infection include transport, tourism, and hospitality businesses – hotels, restaurants, entertainment spots. Specific damage to the sector related to air covers airlines, airplane manufacturers, airports, air traffic services, and airplane repair services. 

Air traffic, which has been growing steadily over the years, dropped drastically overnight. The growth in passenger volume, which increased so much within the past two decades that aviation infrastructure and HR development fell behind, simply crashed. It almost seems that the growth of passengers is being forcibly held up in order to give time for flight instruction and infrastructure to catch up. True, this crash in passenger growth has caused a lot of suffering and victims in the flight sector and everything else related to it. However, what most of us do not realize is that this low volume of aerial traffic opens up great opportunities to resolve serious, prolonged issues in national aviation. 

We can rearrange our air transport to focus on developing domestic tourism and recovering some of our more famous destinations, such as Bali. We can also follow up on the President’s Instruction concerning the management of the Singapore Flight Information Region (FIR). The international aviation safety concern of dense traffic in the area is no longer relevant, because the current much lower air traffic volume no longer requires many workers and sophisticated equipment, as has been frequently dramatized by our neighbor. The Singapore FIR issue, with the current reduced flight traffic, is now small enough to be handled by the Directorate General of Air Transport of the two countries at Ministry level. 

A similar “stroke of good luck” is being enjoyed by Cambodia, who easily wrested back control of its air space management after having had the indignity of allowing Thailand to manage it for years. This is an issue that principally refers to International Aviation Laws; therefore, it can be resolved bilaterally at Directorate General level, in this case the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (“DGCA”). 

The much-lowered flight density is an opportunity for us to adjust the management of national airports or aerodromes to their needs – i.e. whether they will be used for international flights, domestic flights, or both. We need to clearly regulate which airports are open public spaces for commercial civilian flight, and which ones are restricted military bases meant specifically for flight relating to State defense and safety missions. With much lowered frequency of civil commercial flights, the term “optimizing Halim Perdanakusuma Air Base in order to relieve Soekarno-Hatta International Airport from overcapacity” lost its meaning. All available civil commercial aviation facilities are more than enough for convenient operation in Cengkareng. Furthermore, the luxurious Kertajati airport in West Java helps a lot with this issue. 

Reorganizing airline management has also become easier nowadays. Indonesia hitherto needs flag airlines, national aviation ambassadors that connect big cities within and outside the country. Airlines that serve pioneer flight routes to remote locales and national border areas – charter airlines and cargo airlines. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, our need for cargo and charter flights has become dominant in comparison to our need for other types of flights. It would be easy to prioritize joint charter flights with good scheduling in order to improve domestic tourism if airlines cooperate properly with Regional Governments and the Ministry of Tourism at the central level. 

Finally, with the deletion of the plan to construct N-245 and R80 airplanes from the National Strategic Projects list, we have the momentum to make new, more careful planning of the types of airplanes that that we should prioritize for building domestically. Indonesia as an archipelagic country with much rugged, mountainous terrain really needs to have the ability to make its own planes for domestic use. 

We still have enough time to prepare our aviation HR to be focused on the airplane manufacturing industry, as well as to prepare the basic equipment and facilities for establishing airplane factories. N-219 planes are still relevant with our current needs, and later on we can continue by developing planes like N-245 as an “aircraft of choice” for the archipelago’s air transport. 

To repeat, this drastic drop in global flight traffic because of the COVID-19 pandemic, including in Indonesia, opens up golden opportunities for reorganizing our national flight management, whether in terms of traffic routing and scheduling, airport management (international/domestic, civil/ military), development of domestic flight for tourism, air traffic control management in relation to Singapore FIR, and the strategic airplane manufacturing industry sector. The current COVID-19 cloud can thus be said to have a silver lining of providing us with a necessary pause to reorganize our entire aviation matrix. 

Hopefully so.