Commentary: Lion Air crash raises uncomfortable questions about Indonesia’s flight safety regime

Commentary: Lion Air crash raises uncomfortable questions about Indonesia’s flight safety regime

Concerns over pilot errors and aircraft design might have implications for companies who have bought the new Boeing 737 MAX 8, says one aviation safety expert.

Wreckage recovered from Lion Air flight JT610, that crashed into the sea, lies at Tanjung Priok por
Wreckage recovered from Lion Air flight JT610, that crashed into the sea, lies at Tanjung Priok port in Jakarta, Oct 29, 2018. (Photo: Reuters/Willy Kurniawan)

SINGAPORE: The tragic crash of Lion Air JT610 has shocked travel industry stakeholders - from travellers and airlines to aircraft manufacturers and regulators.

For travel agencies, corporate travel managers and individual travellers, it raises anew concerns about Indonesia’s aircraft safety regime, notwithstanding optimism that recent efforts had successfully addressed problems that led jurisdictions like the European Union previously to ban Indonesia-based airlines.

AIRCRAFT AGE VS AIRCRAFT MAINTENANCE CULTURE

Maintenance-related aircraft incidents are often associated with older aircraft, and Internet resources allow passengers and travel safety consultants to assess the age of most airlines’ fleets and even the aircraft that will fly a specific flight.

However, airlines often make last-minute changes to the aircraft that will service a flight, which deprives passengers the ability to assess the age and specific history of an aircraft.

Nevertheless, in this case, the Boeing 737 MAX 8 that crashed, registration PK-LQP, entered service in August 2018 and to date had a mere 800 hours of flight time.

Regardless of aircraft age, just as important for flight safety is the thoroughness by which an airline resolves reported technical and maintenance issues. Was this an issue?

Pilots who flew PK-LQP on Sunday reported the airspeed reading on the captain’s instrument was unreliable and the altitude readings differed on the captain’s and first officer’s instruments. But after flight JT610 crashed, Lion Air had come out to state that PK-LQP was airworthy and that the earlier technical issues had been resolved.

Families of passengers of  Lion Air flight JT610 stand as they look at the belongings of the passen
Families of passengers of Lion Air flight JT610 stand as they look at the belongings of the passengers at Tanjung Priok port in Jakarta, Indonesia, October 31, 2018. (Photo: REUTERS/Beawiharta)

Notwithstanding Lion Air’s public affirmation of PK-LQP’s airworthiness, flight JT610 quickly reported problems including a rapid drop in altitude followed by resumption in its ability to steadily climb before contact was lost only 13 minutes after take-off.

It is impossible to determine whether a maintenance, technical, human error or other factor caused the crash at this point. A successful recovery of the flight data recorders will help investigators conduct a thorough investigation.

READ: Found: Lion Air flight JT610's black box

PILOT INFORMATION – A MYSTERY FOR PASSENGERS

Corporations, governments and other institutional users of air travel have the ability to conduct a broad due diligence review of an airline and its pilots in order to qualify the airline as an approved service provider.

For individual travellers, specific and accurate flight hours data for airline pilots is difficult to obtain prior to flying. Shortly after JT610 crashed, Lion Air announced that pilot Bhavye Suneja had 6,000 flight hours and co-pilot Harvino had 5,000 flight hours.

Yet, such information (or press reports about the pilots’ social media footprint and employment history) after an incident is useful for investigators but of limited value to travellers. 

Travellers should keep in mind that jurisdictions with rapidly expanding air travel industries and new entrants in the low cost carrier segment are under pressure to hire pilots and some jurisdictions license pilots do so with lower flight hours requirements than the more stringent requirements in the United States or other more advanced jurisdictions. 

As with any passenger aircraft crash investigation, investors will also closely examine the personal lives and finances of the pilot and co-pilot though recent investigatory experience into pilot behaviour, such as for Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, indicates definitive conclusions can be elusive.

THE INTERNATIONAL REGULATORY RESPONSE

The Lion Air crash occurred shortly after the European Union in June updated its Air Safety List, a list of airlines that do not meet international safety standards, to remove Indonesian airlines after improvements in Indonesian aviation safety standards satisfied EU regulators. The EU previously removed a ban on Lion Air in June 2016.

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File photo of a Lion Air plane. (Photo: AFP/Adek Berry)

Also in 2016, the US Federal Aviation Administration granted Indonesia a “Category 1” rating that allowed service to the United States and code-shares with US airlines. The FAA revoked this status in 2007 because Indonesia’s air safety regime was found to lack laws or regulations necessary to oversee air carriers in accordance with minimum international standards.

If the Lion Air crash investigation finds that Indonesia’s air safety regulatory oversight and enforcement is weak and was a factor in the crash, an EU or US ban on Indonesian airlines might be re-imposed.

Alternatively, if the crash is due to a deficiency in Lion Air’s maintenance or pilot training procedures rather than the regulatory environment, a ban may be imposed on Lion Air.

Such actions would be disruptive to passengers planning travel to or from Indonesia. Already in the aftermath of the crash, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade imposed a staff ban on flying Lion Air and its subsidiaries.

The accident will also compel Indonesia to demonstrate its commitment to better aviation safety standards in its efforts to take control from Singapore of the Flight Information Region (FIR) over Riau and Riau islands, which would require Indonesia to be elected a member of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Council by complying with ICAO standards and obtaining support from the 191 ICAO members.

AIRLINES AND AIRCRAFT MANUFACTURERS

If the Lion Air crash is due to pilot error and Lion Air’s pilot training is otherwise robust, it is still likely all its pilots will receive additional training. Out of an abundance of caution, other airlines that fly the same aircraft, the Boeing 737 MAX 8, might also elect to provide additional training.

Lion Air crash Jack Board
Dozens of bags of aircraft debris and personal belongings have been retrieved from the Lion Air crash site. (Photo: Jack Board)

If an aircraft design or hardware flaw are the cause of the crash, a redesign that impacts a large number of aircraft will be necessary; Boeing has delivered more than 200 of the MAX 8 with 4,500 orders unfulfilled. Any of these responses can disrupt air travel in the coming months.

WHAT TRAVELLERS NEED TO KNOW

A prudent traveller (or those who make travel decisions for colleagues, clients or family members) takes precautions to be well informed not only about conditions at the destination such as public safety, traffic and weather, but also about travel nodes and methods including airports and air carriers.

As investigators search through the recovered black box found on Thursday (Nov 1), it is too soon to determine the cause of the JT610 tragedy. When making air travel plans, it is never too soon to obtain sufficient information about airline regulatory regimes, airlines, pilots and aircraft.

Ross Darrell Feingold is director, business development at SafePro Group, a Singapore-based consultancy that advises corporate clients about travel safety and risk mitigation around the world.

Source: CNA/nr(sl)

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