Why Indonesia has such a bad flight record

The crash of Sriwijaya Air Flight 182 on 8 January 2021 is another blight on Indonesia’s already poor aviation safety record. In 2020, civil aviation accidents — thanks largely to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic — dropped to zero for the first time. There’s a grim inevitability that the first crash to break that record should happen in Indonesia.

The country has had several incidents linked to safety issues in the past, including poor maintenance, pilot training, communications or mechanical failures and air-traffic control problems. It’s the worst place in Asia to take an airplane, with 104 accidents and 2,353 related fatalities, data from Aviation Safety Network show.

The loss of Sriwijaya Air Flight 182 shortly after takeoff from Jakarta is just the latest in a miserable toll of air accidents for a country that’s long been synonymous with lax aviation safety.

If Indonesia’s record wasn’t so notorious, it’s possible that the 2018 crash of Lion Air Flight 610 would have drawn more attention to the flaws in the Boeing Co 737 MAX’s control systems – five months before a second accident in Ethiopia forced a worldwide grounding.

Despite that, Indonesia has been making genuine and dramatic progress in air safety over the past decade. While good reasons remain to be more cautious about flying there than in many other countries, things have changed substantially from the days when aviation was so unsafe that its airlines were banned from the European Union, as they were between 2007 and 2018.

In 2018 and 2019, Indonesia’s air accident rate was lower than those in the United States and European Union. It used to be the case that Indonesia was in a very different class from other countries: In 2009, there were 18.35 accidents per million departures, compared with a global average of 4.11. Worldwide, air accidents are relatively rare. On average, there are only two to four per million departures, a rate that’s slowly trended down over the past decade. 

This is because an aviation law passed in 2009 has gradually been getting results in Indonesia as a confusing mass of three air navigation agencies has been reduced to one, minimum standards have been set for training and fleet size to shut out the most inexperienced operators, and whistleblower protections have been set up. After dropping sharply in the early part of the decade, accident rates were below the global average in 2018 and 2019. 

Why, then, does the country still seem to have more than its fair share of accidents? One underappreciated factor is that it simply has more than its fair share of flights, with the 11th-largest number of annual departures globally.

Thanks to its population of 267 million, the world’s fourth-largest, and enormous number of small domestic routes, Indonesia accounts for about twice as many flights as the United Arab Emirates, home to Emirates and Etihad Airways PJSC, or more than its neighbors Thailand and the Philippines put together.

A large number of those flights are likely to be unusually challenging whatever happens on the regulatory front. Indonesia is a mountainous archipelago of some 18,000 islands in the stormy tropical monsoon zone straddling the Pacific and Indian oceans, meaning heavy rain, troublesome cloud conditions and other hazards are far more common.

One study last year, led by Agus Promono from the School of Aviation at the University of New South Wales, found that poor weather was a factor in 58% of accidents in Indonesia, compared to 8% in the U.S. and a global average of 21% to 26%.

Outside the main island, Java, and the denser corners of Sumatra and Sulawesi, it’s also thinly populated and poor. Papua, with about 4.3 million people, accounted for as many accidents between 2010 and 2016 as Java, with 145 million. That’s in large part due to the fact that most flights there are carried out by small turboprop planes, on under-developed routes between remote airports in difficult terrain, leading to a higher risk of pilots becoming disoriented in bad weather.

What sent Flight SJ182 hurtling into the Java Sea shortly after take off isn’t yet clear and likely won’t be until the plane’s black box is retrieved and examined. But two things are known — the jet was flying in heavy rain and the Boeing Co model was almost 27 years old.

It belonged to the airline manufacturer’s family of 737 jets, one of the most successful aircraft of all time. The make first began flying in 1967 and has been through several iterations.

The Sriwijaya Air jet in question was a 737-500, part of Boeing’s Classic series that also includes the 737-300 and the 737-400. The 737 Max series was introduced later in 2017, and that was the version involved in two fatal crashes: Lion Air Flight 610 in October 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in March 2019.

Globally, Boeing delivered about 390 of the 737-500 models, which are designed to transport 145 people at capacity. Those flown by Sriwijaya Air, one of Indonesia’s newest domestic carriers that serves a plethora of small, regional destinations across the Southeast Asian nation, are configured for 120 — 112 in economy class and eight in the executive cabin, according to the carrier’s website.

But with commercial airlines typically replacing jets at around the 25-year mark, Sriwijaya’s was on the older side. Before it came into the hands of the carrier in 2012, it had been flown by Continental Air Lines and United Airlines Holdings Inc, according to fleet data on Planespotters.net.

The average age of Sriwijaya’s Boeing fleet is around 17 years. Excluding a Boeing 737-900 that had its first flight in 2014, that average fleet age extends out to almost 19 years, calculations show. That compares with an average fleet age for flag carrier PT Garuda Indonesia of 8.3 years.

“We don’t know yet what caused the incident,” said Shukor Yusof, the founder of aviation consulting firm Endau Analytics in Malaysia. “That said, there’s still much to do to improve the culture of safety and Indonesian President Joko Widodo could cement his legacy by making a concerted effort to restore confidence and faith in local aviation in his final term.”

Another factor is weather. Indonesia – home to one of Earth’s biggest archipelagos, a chain of islands that spooled out would stretch from London to New York – has one of the highest incidences of thunderstorms and lightning strikes anywhere. (The city of Bogor had a record 322 days of thunderstorms in one year in 1988.)

There are also volcanic eruptions, which throw plumes of ash into the air that can get sucked into jet engines, causing them to fail. In 2019, Bali’s airport canceled and diverted scores of flights following an eruption of Mount Agung, which spewed ash over the south of the island. With global warming, extreme weather occurrences are becoming more common, too. Sriwijaya Flight 182 was delayed by around an hour due to inclement conditions.

Communication failures have also been factors in crashes in Indonesia, which before last year’s coronavirus pandemic was one of the fastest-growing aviation markets. On an AirAsia Bhd. flight that took off from Surabaya in December 2014, the Indonesian pilot and French co-pilot ended up counteracting each other at the controls after their attempts to fix a faulty rudder system caused the auto-pilot to disengage. The plane rose steeply, stalled and plummeted into the ocean.

Sriwijaya Air, which was established in 2003 and now flies 53 routes, most of them local but some international including to Penang, Malaysia and Dili, Timor Leste, hasn’t had any fatal accidents previously. There have been four other incidents involving its jets, the last in May 2017 when a Boeing 737-33A overshot a runway.

The time before that was in June 2012 when another Boeing jet veered off the runway after touchdown in Pontianak, West Kalimantan, where Flight 182 was headed. The plane was written off due to extensive landing gear damage. It was also raining heavily at the time of the approach.

Four non-fatal incidents in 17 years isn’t bad. TransNusa Aviation Mandiri, founded in 2012, has had one while Lion Air, established in 1999, has had nine plus another two fatal incidents.

Boeing’s 737-500 jet has been involved in eight hull-loss accidents, or incidents where the aircraft damage isn’t repairable, with a total of 220 fatalities, according to Aviation Safety Network. Airbus SE’s A319, a comparable jet, has been involved three.

In September 2008, an Aeroflot PJSC 737-500 flight crashed killing 88 while an Asiana Airlines Inc accident in July 1993 claimed 68 lives. Investigators linked the crashes to factors including pilot performance, training or weather. If there are no survivors of Sriwijaya Flight 182, that would mark the 737-500’s third-worst disaster.

Clearly, any air accident is one too many. Still, Indonesia’s progress is evidence that there’s no great mystery to making flying safer. Building on the advances already made will mean that the country may one day be able to shed its reputation as the world capital of dangerous flying.

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