Sriwijaya crash places Indonesian transport security within the highlight | Aviation Information
Jakarta, Indonesia – Investigators have yet to determine the cause of the Sriwijaya Air plane crash in Indonesia, which killed all 63 people on board. However, the disaster has once again put the focus on the maintenance, training and safety of the entire transport system in the country.
“There are correlations between the poor safety records of various modes of transport in Indonesia,” Ziva Arifin, president of Aviatory Indonesia, a Jakarta consultancy, told Al Jazeera. “But every single sector faces unique challenges, and aviation is the sector that has seen the greatest safety improvements in recent years.”
Indonesia has recorded 104 civil aircraft accidents and more than 1,300 deaths since 1945. This makes Indonesia the deadliest country in the Asia-Pacific region, according to the Aviation Safety Network.
The risks increased significantly in 2001 when a number of new low-cost airlines emerged from deregulation, including Sriwijaya Air, which started operations two years later.
In the midst of cut-throat competition, a subsequent price war contributed to poor maintenance and a series of deadly air disasters.
By 2009, the number of accidents per million departing flights had risen to 18.35, compared to a global average of 4.11, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), and Indonesian airlines were flying to the United States and Europe Union has been banned.
Several new aviation laws introduced later that year forced airlines to invest in safety.
Sriwijaya Air flight attendants visit the site where SJ 182 crashed to pay their respects to the deceased [Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana/Reuters]The result was a significant improvement in safety. The latest ICAO audit showed that Indonesia is now above the global average in five out of eight categories, including accident investigations and aircraft airworthiness.
The US and EU have also dropped their bans on Indonesian airlines.
“Tragedies at Sea”
Other – lesser known – modes of transport have seen few improvements.
According to the Baird Maritime Passenger Vessel Accident Database, Indonesia has the highest number of boat and ship accidents in the world.
The data shows that since 2000 there have been 645 passenger ship accidents in Indonesia – more than any other country in the world – and 33,700 people have lost their lives.
The sheer number of boats operating in an archipelago nation of 17,000 islands contributes to this. But also the lax enforcement of security regulations, where passenger and cargo limits are regularly ignored.
In 2018, more than 200 people died when a 60-passenger ferry sank in Lake Toba, a crater lake and popular vacation destination in Sumatra. In July, nine people drowned after a wooden boat that was allowed to carry 15 left Timor Island with twice the number on board and capsized.
“We have these constant tragedies at sea because security inspectors in ports are not doing their job,” said Siswanto Rusdi, director of the National Maritime Institute in Indonesia. “By law, every ship leaving port must undergo a visual inspection to check the number of passengers, the amount of cargo carried and the condition of the boat. In practice, however, this rarely happens. Most security inspectors spend their time playing cards. “
Ross Taylor, president of the Indonesia Institute, a think tank in Perth, experienced firsthand the dangers of taking a ferry to the Thousand Islands, the tropical islands off the north coast of Jakarta, where Sriwijaya Air’s flight SJ182 crashed into the sea.
“About halfway there was a big storm and massive waves crashed over the front window, soaking everyone in it,” he recalled. “I heard a deckhand yelling at the captain: ‘Turn around, turn around, or we’ll turn around!’ The passengers screamed and vomited, but the captain carried on. We made it in the end, but my wife was traumatized. She never wants to visit Indonesia again. “
He adds, “It wasn’t a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Everyone who travels by boat in Indonesia has similar stories. “
Traveling by road is also risky. Dozens of millions of private vehicles, the lack of laws setting limits on blood alcohol levels, and traffic police generally forgiving money bribes violations have helped put Indonesia in fifth place in the highest number of traffic accidents in the world, according to World Health Organization.
The country’s large fleet of buses is particularly prone to accidents, as the timetables encourage passengers to stand in aisles or sit on rooftops after full school hours. When drivers suddenly brake, tragedy can easily ensue.
Ferries have a poor safety record with numerous accidents in recent years. In July 2018, at least 12 passengers died after a ferry sank off the coast of Selayar Island in South Sulawesi [Mustafa Syahril/EPA-EFE]The attitude that parts are only replaced if they break during maintenance increases the risk. While on a bus ride in West Kalimantan Province earlier this month, Al Jazeera’s reporter noticed that the driver had connected an old water bottle with a hose to the dashboard to deliver fluid to the steering system.
According to data from national traffic accidents in Indonesia, violations of traffic rules are also the main cause of the approximately 300 accidents that occur at level crossings in Indonesia every year.
In 2019, a seven-person car in West Java was hit by a train, killing everyone on board after the driver ignored the closed gate and alarm bells to get across the railroad lines in front of the train. In June, a man narrowly escaped with his life after driving through an ungated level crossing when a train approached and his car suddenly stopped.
A security inspector from the Jakarta Ministry of Transportation, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the press, told Al Jazeera that all modes of transport in Indonesia have comprehensive laws and regulations. He insisted that all public transport go through “strict” checks before they leave.
Families await news of the sunken ferry KM Sinar Bangun after the boat sank on Lake Toba in North Sumatra [Dedi Sinuaji/EPA]Despite improvements, the Indonesian aviation industry still has a long way to go.
“While major, fatal crashes are not as common in Indonesia as they were before, there are still a number of near-misses, such as runway excursions after unstable approaches,” said Greg Waldron, Asia editor-in-chief at FlightGlobal, a news website the aviation industry. “There are still signs that a comprehensive safety culture has not yet taken root.”
He says the grounding of commercial aircraft is also a problem during the pandemic: “A number of aircraft have been in storage for some time, and the skills of pilots have also rusted a bit given the relative lack of flight over the past year.”
Search for answers
Heavy rainfall, which delayed the departure of Air Sriwijaya’s doomed flight SJ182 on Jan. 9, may also have contributed to the accident.
A study by the University of New South Wales’ School of Aviation found that bad weather contributed 58 percent of plane crashes in Indonesia, compared with a global average of 24 percent.
However, the study found that the most common factor was interaction between the cockpit crew. A communication failure between the Sriwijaya pilots and the air traffic controllers has emerged as an early focus of the investigation.
Gerry Soejatman, an aviation advisor in Jakarta, says the lack of response from the pilots in the minutes prior to the crash could indicate that the pilots were distracted by mechanical failure.
Debris from the Sriwijaya Air plane in the port of Tanjung Priok in Jakarta [Adi Weda/EPA]“The pilots are trained to fly the aircraft first, then to navigate the aircraft and finally to communicate with the air traffic controllers,” he explains. “If the crew was dealing with a problem that they believed could be solved, it makes sense that they should not act. We cannot rule out mechanical failures. “
Taylor of the Indonesia Institute, also a former chairman of the Chartered Institute of Transport of Australia and a former manager of the international air cargo industry, says a combination of poor maintenance and crisis training contributes to many transportation accidents in Indonesia.
“If something goes wrong in Indonesia, it can often lead to disaster, as the person responsible has not necessarily been trained in dealing with emergencies,” he said.
“And the quality of their equipment, things like radar that can help the pilot in emergencies, is often perceived as poor. We know that Sriwijaya’s flight departed in bad weather, so investigators will ask what type of radar the plane had. It was probably an old fashioned guy telling a pilot there was a thunderstorm ahead of him, but he can’t tell him if another storm was behind it like the state-of-the-art equipment can. “
Aviation consultant Soejatman confirms that the 26-year-old Boeing 737-500 was still equipped with its original radar system, but emphasizes that any discussion of the cause of the crash remains speculative for the time being.
Search teams have restored the aircraft’s flight data recorder, which is likely to give some clues as to what happened. But they are still searching the ocean floor for the cockpit voice recorder memory card that would reveal the crew’s final conversations.
It could be a while before the victims’ families figure out why SJ182 was down.
“The inspectors have announced that they will provide a preliminary report within 30 days of the accident, but the conclusions will not be communicated to the public until 12 months later, early next year,” Soejatman said.