Sleeping Lion

(This article first appeared as our lead Comment in 23-29 April Flight International)

Indonesia’s Lion Air would have hoped 2013 would be remembered for its order for 234 Airbus A320s in March, and its plans to start two new subsidiaries on the way towards becoming a major pan-Asian airline. Instead, the lasting image from this year is likely to be that of a Lion Air Boeing 737-800 floating in the sea off Bali’s airport last week with a broken fuselage. Important questions are rightly being asked once more about Lion’s – and Indonesia’s – air safety standards.

Flightglobal’s Ascend database shows that during the past 10 years, there have been at least 30 hull losses and 23 other “major” incidents in Indonesia. This chronic problem led to Jakarta enlisting IATA and ICAO to help improve standards, but more can be done. The transport ministry must restructure its Directorate General of Civil Aviation, force it to confront its problems, and get outside experts in. It can enlist countries such as Taiwan and South Korea, which once had similarly dismal safety records. Changes require a major shift in mindsets and nothing will happen overnight, but that just makes them even more urgent.

The Indonesian airlines began improving after the EU’s 2007 ban and flag carrier Garuda Indonesia was taken off the list as it was progressively lifted from 2009. But Lion, which only began operations in 2000, remains banned for good reason. Including the latest, there have been seven major incidents involving its aircraft. One was fatal and six were hull losses. This is the worst record of any major Indonesian airline. The focus has shifted to the weather in Bali during the latest crash and Lion’s officials will point out that their last major incident before this was in November 2010. These, however, should not matter in the bigger picture.

Indonesian airlines will operate a record number of aircraft during the next few years, and the onus is on Jakarta to impose even stricter safety standards across the board. Regulators must review ground and in-flight training standards and check if Indonesia’s airlines have enough qualified pilots, engineers and other essential personnel to meet their growing fleet numbers. Indonesia should also apply the EU’s safety standards, and impose stricter sanctions on its airlines. If one of them does not meet the standards within six months, it should be banned from adding new aircraft to its fleet. If it fails after a year, its AOC should be suspended. Yes, these are drastic measures but it is about time Indonesia swallows a bitter pill. Any airline that compromises safety for expansion does not deserve to fly.

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