JAKARTA: After almost three months at the bottom of the ocean, the cockpit voice recorder of Sriwijaya Air SJ 182 was finally recovered this week.
Since Jan 9, the families of the 62 people who died when the aircraft crashed shortly after takeoff from Jakarta’s international airport Soekarno-Hatta have struggled with their loss, as well as questions about what caused the tragedy.
While a preliminary report suggested problems with the plane’s autothrottle system, which controls engine power automatically, the final investigation report is not expected to be ready until early next year. The voice recorder may provide vital clues about what happened.
The Jan 9 tragedy was the third major deadly aviation mishap in six years; all three happened in the same area.
AirAsia Indonesia QZ 8501 crashed in 2014 and Lion Air JT 610 went down in 2018. More than 400 lives were lost in these three accidents.
The country has also seen many non-fatal plane accidents over the years.
The most recent case took place on Mar 20, when a Trigana Air cargo plane returned to base shortly after it took off due to technical problems. It skidded off the runway of Jakarta's Halim Perdanakusuma Airport.
These accidents have highlighted the issue of aviation safety in the archipelago. Those interviewed by CNA said that the root causes include lack of maintenance and human capital.
Regulators argue, however, that a robust airworthiness check and supervision regime has been enforced.
For 10 years, Indonesia's flights were closely monitored by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The European Union (EU) banned Indonesian airlines from operating there between 2007 and 2018.
Just as the industry emerged from the decade of sanctions and was getting ready to soar, COVID-19 struck and put financial as well as operational pressure on the airlines.
With the size of almost 2 million sq km, Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelagic country.
It has about 17,000 islands stretching over 5,000 km from east to west. Thus, air transport plays a crucial role in domestic travel.
“In the sixties, we had a boom and it consolidated into the eighties," said Jakarta-based aviation expert Gerry Soejatman.
“When the Asian financial crisis hit Indonesia in 1998, the industry collapsed which was followed by loosening of regulations,” he added.
In the noughties, new airlines such as Lion Air, Adam Air and Sriwijaya Air began to emerge.
“Initially that was okay because we had a lot of unemployed pilots as a result of the monetary crisis.
“And then somebody realised, if you sell cheap tickets, people will start flying instead of taking the bus, train or ship. And prices went down ... the sector exploded,” said Mr Soejatman, who is also the secretary of think tank Indonesia Aviation Network.
“Because of the massive growth, the number of accidents grew,” he added.
Reports of maintenance lapses started to surface around 2005, he claimed.
In 2007, several accidents came under public scrutiny, including an Adam Air flight and one involving a Garuda Indonesia aircraft.
Adam Air KI 574 went missing on New Year's Day and after weeks of search, authorities declared that the plane crashed somewhere in the Makassar Strait and all 102 people on board had died.
The Indonesian National Transportation Safety Committee (KNKT) concluded that the pilots lost control of the aircraft after they became preoccupied with troubleshooting the plane's faulty inertial navigation system.
READ: 'We have to find all 62 people', says rescue commander involved in Sriwijaya Air recovery mission
Then there was the case of Garuda Indonesia GA 200 from Jakarta that was bound for Yogyakarta. The plane skidded and caught fire when it was trying to land at Adisutjipto airport on Mar 7, 2007. A total of 21 people out of 140 onboard died.
Investigators attributed the accident, among other factors, to the pilots' errors and revealed that the plane was flown at an excessively high airspeed and steep descent.
SAFETY CATEGORY DOWNGRADED, EUROPEAN UNION BAN
Subsequently, ICAO performed an audit on the country’s civil aviation sector and the result showed that Indonesia’s safety compliance score was 54 per cent, below the international standard of 60 per cent.
In the same year, FAA downgraded Indonesia’s aviation safety from category 1 to category 2. This meant that the aviation safety regulations had not been implemented properly and the flight regulations did not meet the standards set by ICAO.
In July 2007, the EU went a step further by banning Indonesian airlines from operating in its countries. The ban was in place for 62 operators, including charter operators.
The EU lifted the ban for national airline Garuda Indonesia in 2009, but most Indonesian airlines were still sanctioned.
By 2011, some of the airlines upped their efforts to improve safety.
Lion Air ordered more than 100 Boeing 737-900ER planes. AirAsia began to adopt best practices from other countries and got help from Airbus in terms of improving safety.
"Everyone was basically looking at external audits to make sure they were okay,” said Mr Soejatman, the aviation expert.
But then the industry was faced with a different problem, which was a shortage of pilots.
“There were people who just came out of flying school, and then we started taking foreign pilots. Foreign pilots who couldn’t get jobs in their countries but needed the hours," Mr Soejatman said, adding that this coincided with instances of planes slipping on the runways.
Subsequently, Lion Air reviewed its practices and stopped hiring foreign pilots who had no experience. Observers said this had a positive impact on reducing the number of cases where planes slipped on the runways.
READ: Sriwijaya Air crash - Co-pilot among the brightest at flying school, pilot a 'warm and compassionate' person
The FAA was looking into upgrading Indonesia’s aviation safety category, but then a major air accident happened in late 2014.
AirAsia Indonesia QZ 8501 went missing on Dec 28, 2014, after it took off from Surabaya to Singapore.
A few days after it disappeared, authorities concluded it crashed into the Java Sea, taking the lives of all 162 people on board.
Investigators revealed that a faulty component and crew action were the cause of the crash.
The tragedy was the world’s third-worst air accident in 2014, after Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 went missing in March and MH17 was shot down in July.
Later in August 2015, a scheduled passenger flight of Trigana Air 267 crashed when it was on its way from Sentani to Oksibil, both in Papua province. The accident claimed the lives of all 54 people on board.
But despite these accidents, the FAA upgraded Indonesia’s safety level to category 1 in 2016. Two years later, the EU officially lifted its ban on all Indonesian airlines.
However, the issue of aviation safety came to the fore again when a Lion Air plane crashed into the Java Sea in October 2018.
JT 610 had just departed Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta airport for Pangkal Pinang in Sumatra when it crashed 13 minutes after take off.
All 189 people did not survive. It was the world's first accident involving a Boeing 737 MAX 8.
In the immediate aftermath of the crash, speculation was focused on pilot competency and potential shortcomings in Indonesia's aviation standards. It was subsequently established that sensor and instrument failures tied to a design flaw in the automated flight control system of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 were among the factors leading to the accident.
The Sriwijaya Air crash in January this year is the latest setback.
"It is a shame that the last accident had to happen because we have improved. We were sanctioned for 10 years and put into category 2, but we have fixed things and managed to be above average,” said independent aviation analyst and former editor-in-chief of an aviation magazine Dudi Sudibyo.
A preliminary investigation of flight SJ 182 revealed last month that the plane’s autothrottle system, which controls engine power automatically, could have malfunctioned as it showed anomalies.
As the investigation is still ongoing, the KNKT said it would focus on the plane’s autothrottle system and related components installed in the aircraft, the plane’s maintenance record as well as possible human factors involved.
Why is aviation safety a recurring problem in Indonesia?
Those interviewed by CNA said that maintenance issues and human capital are among the root causes. However, from the regulator's perspective, aviation authorities said a proper system to ensure airworthiness has been put in place.
Mr Soejatman, the aviation expert, opined that Indonesia does not have enough maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) hangars, with most of the facilities located in Jakarta, Bandung, Surabaya and Batam. This is despite aviation activities taking place across the country.
Commenting on the perception that Indonesia's aviation industry is struggling because it uses many old planes, he said that old planes are not the problem, although they do need proper maintenance which can be costly.
“An old plane by itself is not a challenge because as long as you maintain the aircraft according to the guidelines, an old plane is still airworthy. It is still safe to fly. Of course, it may not be as safe as the new plane, but it is still safe.
“The problem with old planes is the maintenance is costly ... It ties down resources for the airline, financial resources that can be put into investing in safety improvements.”
He noted that airlines based in the US and Canada have been operating old aircraft, without compromising safety.
“Because they have maintenance facilities and human capital for the maintenance spread around the country,” Mr Soejatman said.
The authorities said that a proper system of airworthiness checks has been put in place.
Transport ministry spokesperson Aditia Irawati told CNA that airworthiness checks ensure that the aircraft meet design requirements and are in safe condition to fly.
“The inspection process is carried out in accordance with the approved implementation guidelines, namely SI 8900-6.1 Aircraft Inspection Staff Instruction," she said.
“And if all the aircraft’s documents are complete and the condition of the aircraft meets the requirements according to the type of aircraft and its operation, an Airworthiness Certificate will be issued, and the aircraft is declared safe to fly,” she explained.
Moreover, the ministry conducts routine and comprehensive supervision in the maintenance and operation of aircraft, Mdm Irawati said.
This surveillance includes aircraft that are being maintained in an MRO hangar, she said.
The transport ministry has 369 inspectors at its disposal. Out of this, 202 of them are aircraft operations inspectors and 167 are airworthiness inspectors.
COVID-19 BRINGS FINANCIAL AND MAINTENANCE PRESSURE
Mdm Irawati added that the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the challenges faced by aviation companies in Indonesia.
“Some Indonesian operators have halted their operations and some have made massive cost-cutting measures to stay afloat,” she noted.
Indonesia has recorded more than 1.5 million COVID-19 cases and is the worst-affected country in Southeast Asia.
Chairman of the Indonesia National Air Carrier Association (INACA) Denon Prawiraatmadja said that the pandemic has resulted in financial pressure, as many operators are actually leasing their aircraft.
“Mostly, they work with lessors. This means that the planes are owned by the lessors.
"If the plane is grounded, it can’t work. So there are still costs to bear, but there is no income," said Mr Prawiraatmadja.
In an interview with CNA, Mr Irfan Setiaputra, president director and CEO of Garuda Indonesia said that there are fixed costs that need to be paid. These include leasing fees, fuel, maintenance and human capital, he said.
Mr Setiaputra said that the airline has been renegotiating leases to survive the pandemic while increasing the frequency of inspections to make sure that the planes are all airworthy.
For Garuda Indonesia, maintenance is important to ensure safety and it has no problem performing it as it has its own MRO arm, he added.
However, a technician working for an Indonesian airline, who only wanted to be known as Mr Budi, told CNA that the financial pressure faced by operators does have an impact on fleet maintenance.
“Suppressing costs everywhere is the first on the agenda to overcome issues, and an aircraft's maintenance is very costly as a fact ... But you cannot suppress aircraft maintenance cost to maintain its airworthiness, though you are able to adjust to minimise the utilisation of aircraft,” said Mr Budi.
Mr Budi said that his workload has remained high throughout the pandemic.
“I'm busier than ever. The lessors are engaging (us) more, making sure the lessees can keep up with their airworthiness (since the fleets are their assets),” he said.
He revealed that on the lessees' requests, some lessors also help to pay for the maintenance of major components such as engine and landing gear.
Mr Soejatman added that with COVID-19, it is harder to bring in foreign experts who have the required skills.
“It is not impossible, but the cost associated with it is bigger than normal. That exposes weaknesses in our human capital maintenance and where the holes are,” he said.
PILOT COMPETENCY AN ISSUE DURING PANDEMIC
While planes are grounded and flights reduced, questions have also been asked on whether pilots are getting enough hours to retain their skills or even upgrade them.
The issue of pilot competency became a subject of debate last September when a Lion Air plane veered off the runway after landing.
An investigation by the KNKT found that the pilot had only flown on one day in the last 90 days and that the co-pilot had not flown at all since February, leading to speculation that they may not have gotten sufficient refresher training.
Mdm Irawati from the transport ministry said that in accordance with the Civil Aviation Regulations (CASR), all pilots assigned must be trained and pass a competency check in the simulator.
“This competency check is carried out by the inspector of the ministry of transportation every six months,” she said.
Captain Rama Noya, vice president of the Indonesian Pilot Association, said that pilots still have enough flying hours in general and so no extra training sessions are needed.
"It is true there is a reduction in flight frequency ... For example, (prior to COVID-19) in a month a person could fly around 90 to 100 hours, now it is only 50 to 60 hours.”
But that is still more than enough as the regulation stipulates a pilot should have 10 takeoffs and landings in three months, he said.
“We have met that requirement, actually even overachieved,” he argued.
THE ROAD AHEAD
For Garuda Indonesia, the priority at the moment is to survive and sustain until the pandemic is over.
Mr Setiaputra cited regaining passengers’ confidence as the key. He said Indonesia still has a large domestic market but many are afraid to fly because COVID-19 is raging.
He revealed that at the moment, the airline’s performance is only about 30 per cent as compared to before COVID-19.
Thus, it is now campaigning for safe flying and even has fun initiatives such as painting a mask on the plane's nose to make people feel relaxed and cheerful about flying.
It also still flies with a maximum of 70 per cent capacity, even though the government has allowed airlines to operate with full capacity since January.
Mr Danang Mandala Prihantoro, the spokesperson of Lion Air Group, the country’s largest air operator, said the company has taken several measures during the pandemic to ensure it can still operate.
It has gradually reopened old routes that were closed due to the pandemic, while announcing new routes. This has been done by adjusting the number of routes, frequency and aircraft rotation.
It also takes into account the aircraft undergoing maintenance and those that serve as a backup.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, Lion Air Group consistently carries out all aircraft maintenance in accordance with the maintenance programme on a scheduled and unscheduled basis.
“This shows our seriousness in every flight operational implementation, ensuring that the aircraft is safe and airworthy,” Mr Prihantoro told CNA.
While nobody can predict when the pandemic will end, one thing for sure is air travel will remain essential in Indonesia.
Mr Brendan Sobie, a Singapore-based independent aviation analyst said that Indonesia’s aviation market is very complex and has a lot of growth and potential.
He noted that as Indonesia ranks in the world’s top six biggest domestic markets together with the US, China, India, Japan and Brazil, this is where a lot of the growth potential lies.
"The (aviation industry's) recovery curve has been extremely uneven ... and has not been as good as the airlines were hoping for. And the problem is that the longer the recovery takes domestically, the more pressure it has on the airlines because they are losing a lot of money," he said.
"The long-term potential is still there. But 2021 could be a difficult year like it is in most markets," Mr Sobie added.