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Indonesia faults its airlines on safety

All major carriers failed to meet regulations, says an official audit made after a series of deadly transit disasters.

March 28, 2007|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

JAKARTA, INDONESIA — Navigating a country of 17,500 islands scattered across three time zones has never been easy. Now it's downright scary for many air travelers.

Twice this year, Indonesian airliners have crashed, leaving more than 120 people dead. A Transportation Ministry audit released late last week found none of 20 major Indonesian passenger and cargo airlines fully met national safety regulations.

The news, which also comes in the wake of a series of ferry disasters, shook Indonesians already nervous about taking a trip. "I think consumers have some kind of mental trauma that makes them think twice before flying," said Tulus Abadi, a leader of the Indonesian Consumers Organization.

And this week, Australian foreign affairs officials issued an advisory warning to Australians to take the audit into account before making travel plans.

Like most Asian countries, Indonesia is in the midst of a transportation revolution, as competition drives down prices and makes air travel affordable for people who once relied on boats, buses and cars. To keep fares low, airlines fighting for customers have cut corners, the audit shows.

All of the airlines met minimum safety requirements, but none qualified as an excellent carrier, Budhi Mulyawan Suyitno, Indonesia's new director general for air transportation, said in an interview.

Seven airlines ranked in the lowest of three categories, and the 13 others placed in the middle. Suyitno said that if those in the middle "made just a little effort and worked harder in these coming months, they can be upgraded to the top category."

The most serious problems included insufficient pilot training and aircraft flying without reserve fuel, Suyitno said.

Other shortcomings detected by the audit included using flight data and cockpit noise recorders that were out of date and would make accident investigations more difficult.

Suyitno declined to name the worst offenders.

The government has given airlines three months to improve or face having aircraft grounded or licenses revoked.

"In this airline business, the potential for failure is big," Suyitno said. "That is why we need strict regulation. We don't ... allow even a tiny space for error."

On March 7, a state-owned Garuda Airlines Boeing 737-400 overshot the runway at the Yogyakarta airport on the island of Java and burst into flames. The crash killed 20 passengers and a crew member. An additional 119 people survived.

The pilot said he felt a powerful downdraft during landing. Survivors told of the aircraft bouncing hard off the runway at least twice.

Investigators are looking into claims the plane was traveling too fast on its approach. Some experts say wing flaps may have malfunctioned.

Two months before the Garuda crash, a budget-fare Adam Air jet disappeared off Sulawesi island, killing all 102 people aboard. There had been at least three airline disasters in the 20 months preceding that accident.

Indonesian airline safety is suffering because some of the new airlines are run by people with lots of money but not enough experience, consumer advocate Abadi said. Corruption and nepotism in issuing expensive operating licenses only raise the risks, he said.

"But the most important factor is lack of supervision from government," he added. "Government is very kind, freely giving operating licenses to new airlines, which creates an oversupply. But then the government fails to supervise, which makes conditions worse."

Abadi called on Indonesian authorities to send a strong signal by shutting down airlines with the worst safety records instead of protecting cheap air travel at any cost. "Do not gamble on people's lives only to defend something that is short-term," he said.

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paul.watson@latimes.com

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