Jakarta, Indonesia – Investigators have yet to determine the cause of Sriwijaya Air’s plane crash this month in Indonesia that killed all 63 people on board, but the disaster has once again brought maintenance, training and security in the country’s transportation system.
“There are correlations between the poor safety performance of different forms of transportation in Indonesia,” Ziva Arifin, president of Aviatory Indonesia, a consulting firm in Jakarta, told Al Jazeera. “But each sector faces unique challenges, and aviation is the sector that has seen the most significant safety improvements in recent years.”
Indonesia has recorded 104 civil aviation accidents and more than 1,300 related deaths since 1945, making it the deadliest country in Asia-Pacific to fly according to the Aviation Safety Network.
Risks increased markedly in 2001, when deregulation spawned a large number of new low cost airlines, including Sriwijaya Air, which began operations two years later.
Amidst fierce competition, a subsequent price war contributed to poor maintenance and a series of fatal air disasters.
In 2009, the number of accidents per million departing flights had risen to 18.35 from a global average of 4.11, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), and Indonesian airlines had been prohibited from flying to the United States and the European Union. .
Several new aviation laws introduced later in the year forced airlines to invest in safety.
The result has been a significant improvement in safety, with the latest ICAO audit showing Indonesia now leads the world average in five of eight categories, including accident investigations and aircraft airworthiness.
The US and EU have also dropped their bans on Indonesian airlines.
‘Tragedies at sea’
But there has been little improvement in other – less well-known forms of transport.
Indonesia has the highest number of shipping and boating accidents in the world, according to the Baird Database of Maritime Passenger Vessel Accidents.
Its data shows that there have been 645 passenger ship accidents in Indonesia since 2000 – more than any other country in the world – and 33,700 people have lost their lives.
The large number of ships operating in an archipelagic nation of 17,000 islands is a contributing factor. But the same goes for lax enforcement of safety rules, which regularly sees passenger and freight limits ignored.
In 2018, more than 200 people died when a ferry licensed to carry 60 passengers sank in Lake Toba, a crater lake and a popular vacation destination in Sumatra. In July, nine people drowned after a wooden boat licensed to carry 15 left the island of Timor with twice that number on board and capsized.
“We have these constant tragedies at sea because the port security inspectors are not doing their job,” said Siswanto Rusdi, director of the National Maritime Institute in Indonesia. “By law, any ship leaving port must be visually inspected to verify the number of passengers, the amount of cargo carried and the condition of the ship. But in practice, this rarely happens. Most safety inspectors spend their time playing cards instead. “
Ross Taylor, president of the Indonesia Institute, a Perth think tank, experienced firsthand the dangers of a ferry to the Thousand Islands, the chain of tropical islands near the north coast of Jakarta where the flight Sriwijaya Air’s SJ182 crashed into the sea.
“About the halfway point, a big storm hit and massive waves started crashing into the front window, flooding everyone inside,” he recalls. “I heard a sailor shout to the captain, ‘Turn around, or we’ll return! The passengers were screaming and vomiting but the captain continued. We did it at the end, but my wife was traumatized. She never wants to go to Indonesia again. “
He adds: “It was not a unique experience. Anyone who travels on ships in Indonesia has similar stories. “
Traveling by road is also risky. Tens of millions of private vehicles, the absence of laws setting limits for blood alcohol levels, and traffic police who generally forgive violations for cash bribes have helped put Indonesia in fifth place. place for the highest number of road accidents in the world, according to the World Health Organization.
The country’s large bus fleet is particularly prone to accidents due to a vacation planning school that encourages passengers to stand in aisles or sit on rooftops. When drivers brake sharply, tragedy easily follows.
A maintenance attitude of only replacing parts when they break increases the risk. On a bus trip to West Kalimantan province this month, the Al Jazeera reporter noticed that the driver had plugged an old water bottle with a hose into the dashboard to power the system. fluid direction.
Traffic violation is also the main cause of some 300 accidents that occur at level crossings in Indonesia every year, according to national data on traffic accidents in Indonesia.
In 2019, a car carrying seven people in West Java was struck by a train, killing everyone on board, after the driver ignored the closed gate and alarm bells to try to cross the train tracks before the train. In June, a man narrowly escaped with his life after crossing an unclosed level crossing as a train approached and his car suddenly stalled.
A transport ministry safety inspector in Jakarta, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the press, told Al Jazeera that comprehensive laws and regulations apply to everyone. modes of transport in Indonesia. He insisted that all modes of public transport depart through “rigorous” checks before departure.
Despite improvements, the Indonesian aviation industry still has some way to go.
“Although big fatalities are not as frequent as they used to be in Indonesia, you still see a good number of near misses, such as runway excursions after unstable approaches,” said Greg Waldron, editor-in-chief for Asia from FlightGlobal, an aviation industry news site. “There are still signs that a global safety culture has yet to take root.”
He says the stranding of commercial planes during the pandemic is also a concern: “A number of planes have been in storage for some time, and the skills of the pilots are also a bit rusty given the relative lack of flights. last year.
Heavy rains that delayed the departure of doomed Air Sriwijaya flight SJ182 on January 9 may also have contributed to the crash.
A study by the School of Aviation at the University of New South Wales found that bad weather was the cause of 58% of air crashes in Indonesia, compared to a global average of 24%.
Still, the study found that the most common contributing factor was an interaction between the cockpit crew. And a breakdown in communication between the Sriwijaya pilots and the air traffic controllers emerged as one of the initial objectives of the investigation.
Gerry Soejatman, an aviation consultant in Jakarta, says the lack of response from pilots in the minutes leading up to the crash could suggest the pilots were distracted by a mechanical breakdown.
“Pilots are trained to fly the aircraft first, then to steer the aircraft and communicate with air traffic controllers last,” he explains. “If the crew faced a problem that they thought they could solve, it makes sense that they don’t answer. Mechanical breakdown is not something we can rule out. “
Taylor of the Indonesia Institute, also a former president of the Chartered Institute of Transport of Australia and a former executive in the international air cargo industry, says a combination of poor maintenance and crisis training contributes to many passenger accidents. transport in Indonesia.
“When things go wrong in Indonesia, it can often lead to disaster because the manager has not necessarily been trained on how to deal with emergencies,” he said.
“And the quality of their equipment, things like radar that can help the pilot deal with emergencies, is often deemed insufficient. We know the Sriwijaya flight departed in bad weather, so investigators will ask what type of radar the plane had. He was probably an old-fashioned guy who tells a pilot there’s a thunderstorm coming, but can’t tell them if there’s another storm behind him like high tech equipment can.
Aviation consultant Soejatman confirms the 26-year-old Boeing 737-500 was still equipped with its original radar system, but points out that any discussion of the cause of the crash remains speculative for now.
Search teams recovered the aircraft’s flight data recorder, which is likely to provide clues as to what happened. But they’re still scouring the seabed for the cockpit voice recorder memory card, which would reveal the crew’s latest conversations.
It may still be some time before the families of the victims find out why SJ182 came down.
“Inspectors said they would present a preliminary report within 30 days of the crash, but the findings won’t be shared with the public until 12 months later – early next year,” Soejatman said.