- Antara Foto/Hadi Sutrisno via REUTERS
- Following the loss of a Lion Air flight in waters off Java on Monday, Indonesia is grappling with a fresh chapter in its troubled aviation history.
- While some have been quick to condemn Indonesian aviation, this latest tragedy is more out-of-character for an industry that has worked hard at reform for more than a decade during a period of enormous growth.
- Since a Garuda Airways 737-400 left the runway in March 2007, killing one of the seven crew members and 20 passengers, Indonesia has made “enormous strides,” an aviation expert says.
When a Lion Air flight fell out of the sky off the coast of Java on Monday, a new chapter began in Indonesia’s troubled history of aviation disasters.
The downed flight JT610 that crashed after taking off for Pangkal Pinang on Bangka Island on Monday morning West Indonesian Time (WIB) was carrying 181 passengers, including two children and a baby, according to the Jakarta Post.
It appears now that all 189 on board have been lost.
Wreckage was located near where the plane lost contact with air-traffic officials, Muhmmad Syaugi, the head of Indonesia’s search and rescue agency, BASARNAS, told media.
“We don’t know yet whether there are any survivors,” Syaugi told a news conference, Monday. “We hope, we pray, but we cannot confirm.”
But while many have been quick to condemn Indonesian aviation, this latest tragedy is a bit out of character for an industry that has worked hard to reform itself for more than a decade during a period of enormous growth.
Flying Lion Air today is no death sentence and Indonesian aviation is not the monster everyone is making it out to be.
The Indonesian archipelago is made up of some 17,500 islands.
As the economy has grown, more and more Indonesians can afford to use air transport to travel across a nation of innumerable connections.
When 21 people died on March 7, 2007, when a Garuda Boeing 737 skidded off the runway at Yogyakarta, and burst into flames, officials seemed to awaken from the looming national trainwreck facing their transport future.
Geoffrey Thomas, aviation expert and editor-in-chief of AirlineRatings.com, said the accident was an “epiphany” for Indonesia’s national carrier and a turning point for Indonesia.
“Everything had to change and everything did,” Thomas said.
Since then, Thomas says, Indonesian aviation has made “enormous strides.”
Its national carrier invested in, and updated, its fleet, streamlined its operations and within a hectic decade has re-emerged as a “model” breaking back into the US and European markets as authorities from both exacting regulatory bodies lifted their bans on the airline.
If it’s tough getting back into shark-infested waters, then the collective fear that takes hold following blanket coverage of aviation disasters can be even harder to shake.
Which goes some way to explaining the reflex damnation that Indonesia’s reviving air industry and Lion Air have endured these last days.
“We have to be careful not to judge Lion Air too harshly. Lion Air Group has over 300 aircraft and they fly to and from hundreds and hundreds of destinations across Indonesia and their record in recent times is pretty good,” Thomas said.
“I think there are a few people out there jumping on Indonesian aviation saying, ‘oh, it’s hopeless, oh it’s terrible,’ well, certainly there are some airlines with a checkered record, but Lion is not one of them.”
The last fatality Lion Air had was in 2004 and the most damning incident for Garuda in more than a decade was in 2017, when two top executives from its low-cost Citilink carrier resigned after a video of an allegedly inebriated pilot went viral.
Although, it should be noted that it was only when passengers on board complained that the pilot was slurring his onboard welcome that he was dragged off and replaced.
“Overall, Indonesia has made giant strides in the last few years and has become really quite safe to what it was just a few years ago.”
But it wasn’t always like this
According to Airline Ratings at the end of 2015, Indonesia’s disaster-ridden industry had more airlines with the lowest safety ranking than any other country in the world, including Nepal.
“You don’t want to be flying in Nepal,” Thomas told Business Insider.
AirlineRatings.com regularly measures 407 of the world’s major airlines, giving each a safety score out of seven.
Just three years ago, of the 10 airlines that scored just one point or less, all but one was Indonesian.
According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Indonesia is expected to be the sixth-largest market for air travel by 2034, servicing 270 million global and domestic passengers.
Considering its size, scope and the domestic dependence on both tourism and air travel, it is not a market that can be allowed to fail.
“Indonesia has turned it around completely in the last two years, most Indonesian airlines have now completed and passed the IOSA – a demanding international audit, which involves 1,000 safety parameters.”
In a clear nod to Indonesia’s improving behaviors, the US Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that it also upgraded the country’s air safety rating, paving the way for carriers to fly to America.
Indonesia has made it compulsory for such international audits, as well as rigorously enforcing international standards.
“And Indonesia itself passed the international civil aviation organization safety audit and the EU has since lifted its ban on Lion and others to fly to Europe.”
“So Indonesian aviation, notwithstanding this accident, is probably in the best state it’s ever been,” Thomas says.
- Ed Wray/Getty Images
So what went wrong?
The plane was new. The conditions were good. So why are 189 people dead?
Thomas says aviation experts are almost certain the issue with JT610 related to the pitot tube static system which measures altitude and translates the information back to the cockpit and the autopilot.
“I’m not a pilot, however what I do know is that on the previous flight the pilot’s instruments were unreliable, the pitot static tube feeding in the captain’s data was erroneous.”
The pilots that had flown the Lion Air 737 Max that crashed on Monday flagged serious control problems just 48 hours earlier in Bali, similar to those recorded just before the flight crashed into the sea off Java.
Thomas says the jury really is out if this is a Lion Air issue, a Boeing issue or perhaps a pitot tube manufacturer problem.
“We know the mechanics at Lion Air looked at the tube in that flight from Denpesar, we’ve got the log details, it was checked, cleaned and tested. They ticked it off as ‘OK.'”
“Whether that was done correctly or not will have to wait for the investigation – which could be months out.”
Put simply, a pitot-static system is a system of pressure-sensitive instruments that are used in aviation to determine an aircraft’s airspeed, altitude, and altitude trend.
The pitot tube performs like cruise control on a car, if its set to 100 and you’re only on 80 it will speed the car up to get to what it calculates is the right speed.
Another way of explaining this is when, a number of years ago, Qantas had a similar incident flying between Singapore and Perth where the data coming in from the pitot-static tube “went psycho.”
“In that incident, the tube told the autopilot to dive and that’s what the plane did.”
What happened to Lion Air flight JT610:
- According to Aviation-Safety.net flight JT610 took off from runway 25L at Soekarno-Hatta Airport at 06:21 hours local time.
- At 6:33 a.m., Lion Air flight JT-610 loses contact with Jakarta air control
- Surveillance (ADS-B) data of the flight, captured by FlightRadar24 and FlightAware, show erratic values (too fast, too slow, too low, etc).
- The aircraft made a climbing left-hand turn after takeoff.
- Shortly after passing the ADS-B reported altitude of 2100 feet, data points briefly show a lower altitude of around 1475 feet,” FlighRadar24 reported.
- Altitude data sent via ADS-B continue to show an erratic pattern, varying roughly between 4,500 and 5,350 feet.
- The values then rapidly decline until contact is lost.
- According to Aviation-Safety.net, the previous flight of the accident aircraft, then identified as JT043 from Denpasar, Bali, had displayed similar “erratic values” in altitude and airspeed after take-off, which stabilized 8 minutes later.
- A log entry cited by Airline Ratings shows “airspeed unreliable and alt disagree shown after takeoff. It adds that the Captain’s instrument was unreliable and handover control to FO.” (first officer)
- Lion Air has confirmed that the aircraft had a “technical problem” on the previous flight, “which had been resolved according to the procedure.”
- The copy of the tech log shows that the Pitot Tube and Static Port were examined and checked.
- Ed Wray/Getty Images
Hard questions to follow
There can be no doubt that despite their progress, Indonesian air-safety officials face many difficult questions.
For example, when Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta where JT610 took off is undergoing a major terminal expansion program, with plans to add a third runway as well, is said to only have a capacity to manage around 43 million passengers annually, when in 2017 some 60 million passengers flew in or out of the airport.
How much is being invested in personnel and resources when, speaking to the Jakarta Post at the end of last year, Indonesia’s Transportation Ministry airport director Bintang Hidayat said the number of air passengers would climb by almost 30% to 140 million in 2018, much higher than previously expected.
According to data from the Centre for Aviation domestic air travel accounts for nearly 75% of total passenger traffic, yet at the same time, Indonesia has emerged as a huge tourist destination, with visitor numbers increasing by 21% last year as China has become Indonesia’s largest source market.
If growth once again outstrips oversight, Indonesia’s not-too-distant dark past and the new, terrible images that sink and rest at the bottom of popular imagination will not be far away.