Sriwijaya Air crash places Indonesia's aviation safety under fresh spotlight

Reuters SYDNEY/JAKARTA January 10 | Updated on January 10, 2021

Indonesian police officers carry debris of Sriwijaya Air flight SJ 182, which crashed to the sea, at Tanjung Priok port in Jakarta, Indonesia, January 10, 2021.   -  REUTERS

Indonesia's chequered airsafety record is again in the spotlight after a Sriwijaya Airjet carrying 62 people crashed into the Java Sea minutes aftertake-off on Saturday, marking the country's third major airlinecrash in just over six years.

Before the crash there had been 697 fatalities in Indonesiaover the last decade including military and private planes,making it the deadliest aviation market in the world - ahead ofRussia, Iran and Pakistan - according to Aviation SafetyNetwork's database.

The Sriwijaya crash of a Boeing Co 737-500 followsthe loss of a Lion Air 737 MAX in October 2018 that contributedto a global grounding of the model and the crash of an AirAsiaIndonesia Airbus SE A320 in December 2014.

The Lion Air crash, which killed 189 people, was an outlierin that it mainly revealed fundamental issues with the planemodel and triggered a worldwide safety crisis for Boeing. Evenexcluding the deaths from that crash, Indonesia would rank aboveRussia if there are no survivors from Saturday's crash.

Indonesia, an archipelago of thousands of islands, is highlydependent on air travel and its safety issues illustrate thechallenge relatively new carriers face as they try to keep pacewith unstoppable demand for air travel in developing nationswhile striving for standards that mature markets took decades toreach.

From 2007 to 2018, the European Union banned Indonesianairlines following a series of crashes and reports ofdeteriorating oversight and maintenance. The United Stateslowered its Indonesia safety evaluation to Category 2, meaningits regulatory system was inadequate, between 2007 and 2016.

Indonesia's air safety record has improved in recent years,receiving a favourable evaluation by the United Nations aviationagency in 2018. But in a country with a large death toll fromvehicle and ferry accidents, the safety culture is battlingagainst a mindset that makes it inevitable for some crashes tooccur, experts said.

Saturday's "crash has nothing to do with the MAX, but Boeingwould do well to guide Indonesia - which has a chequered airsafety record - to restore confidence in its aviation industry,"said Shukor Yusof, the head of Malaysia-based aviationconsultancy Endau Analytics.

Authorities located the Sriwijaya jet's flight data recorderand cockpit voice recorder on Sunday but experts said it was tooearly to determine the factors responsible for the crash of thenearly 27-year-old plane.

The flight took off from Jakarta's Soekarno-HattaInternational Airport, the same airport from which the Lion Airjet took off and soon crashed into the sea. The Sriwijaya jetclimbed to 10,900 feet within four minutes but then began asteep descent and stopped transmitting data 21 seconds later,according to tracking website FlightRadar24.

Read more: Suspected debris of Indonesian plane found: Rescue official

"There has been a lot of noise made about the speed of itsfinal descent," said Geoff Dell, an air accident investigationexpert based in Australia. "It is indicative of what happenedbut why it happened is still in many ways a guess really. Thereare multiple ways you can get an aeroplane to go down at thatpace."

He said investigators would look into factors includingmechanical failure, pilot actions, maintenance records, weatherconditions and whether there was any unlawful interference withthe plane. Most air accidents are caused by a combination offactors that can take months to establish.

Various factors under scrutiny

Sriwijaya's operating record will also be placed underscrutiny.

"Its safety record has been mixed," said Greg Waldron, Asiamanaging editor at industry publication FlightGlobal. He saidthe airline had written off three 737s between 2008 and 2012 dueto bad landings that resulted in runway overruns, with the 2008accident resulting in one death and 14 injuries.

The airline in late 2019 ended a year-long partnership withnational carrier Garuda Indonesia and had beenoperating independently.

Just before ending the pact, more than half of Sriwijaya'sfleet had been grounded by the Transportation Ministry due toairworthiness concerns, according to media reports at the time.

Sriwijaya did not respond immediately to a request forcomment. The airline's chief executive said on Saturday theplane that crashed was in good condition.

Like other Indonesian carriers, Sriwijaya had slashed itsflight schedule during the COVID-19 pandemic, which experts saidwill be examined as part of the investigation.

"The challenges that the pandemic brings impacts aviationsafety," said Chappy Hakim, an Indonesian aviation analyst andformer air force official. "For instance, pilots/technicianswere downsized, salaries not paid in full, planes are grounded."

Published on January 10, 2021

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