Singapore 2008: Garuda crash puts air safety in the spotlight

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For years, the archipelago has been notorious for its poor record on airline safety. Has it turned the page on its past?

Next month's anniversary of the Garuda Indonesia crash in Yogyakarta that claimed 21 lives will once again put the spotlight on efforts to improve the country's air safety.

Prior to the crash of the Boeing 737-400 in March 2007 the country's Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) already faced mounting pressure from the International Civil Aviation Organisation and the US Federal Aviation Administration.

ICAO had announced that Indonesia no longer met ICAO standards and the FAA had classified Indonesia has a category two country, putting it in the same league as some of Africa's poorest and most decrepit nations.

But the crash of the Garuda 737-400 airliner at Yogyakarta airport was arguably an even greater catalyst for reform because it generated enormous negative publicity and had a huge psychological impact on the public.

Until the crash, Garuda, the national carrier, had been considered safer than other Indonesian airlines. ICAO had been lobbying Indonesia but it was only after the Garuda crash that the government signed a special declaration with ICAO committing the country to reform.

In the declaration, Indonesia promised to:

  •  correct the deficiencies identified during the ICAO safety oversight audit and other audits
  • ensure that human and financial resources are commensurate with the level of aviation activity
  •  restructure the DGCA and enact laws so the directorate can meet its international obligations in safety oversight and implementation of international standards.

Even though the Indonesian government signed the declaration in mid-2007, around that time the European Commission decided to ban all Indonesian carriers from operating to Europe. However, the ban was mostly symbolic as no Indonesian carriers operate to Europe.

European ambitions

But Garuda does have aspirations to fly to Europe and the EU ban makes it harder for EU citizens to get travel insurance for flights to Indonesia.

The fact that European regulators do not trust the Indonesians to manage air safety led other governments to question the country's competence. Saudi Arabia, for example, threatened its own ban although it dropped the idea, probably after realising the potential political fall-out from banning airlines from a fellow Muslim country from operating to the home of Mecca. But there is no ignoring Indonesia's poor safety record.

The International Air Transport Association says that as of 1 December the accident rate in Asia Pacific for 2007 stood at 2.68 hull losses per 1 million flight hours, compared to 0.67 in 2006. And Indonesia was the reason for the accident rate increase, says Guenther Matschnigg, IATA's senior vice president for safety, operations and infrastructure.

He says IATA is now helping three airlines in Indonesia complete the IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA). One is Garuda Indonesia, another is Mandala Airlines, while the third carrier remains undisclosed.

Partnership for safety

IATA this year also plans to introduce its Partnership for Safety programme to Indonesia. Under the scheme a gap analysis will be carried out, says Matschnigg. "It's voluntary for non-IATA member airlines and we fund it from our budget," says Matschnigg, adding that the programme "is not a full IOSA audit but gives a clear indication where airlines need to improve" to meet IOSA standards.

Some civil aviation authorities in other countries use the IOSA system when carrying out their own audits. "We have suggested that Indonesia adopt IOSA and the DGCA has said they will do it," says Matschnigg.

While the Garuda accident has proven to be a catalyst for change, it was not the first fatal crash in Indonesia last year. For example, an Adam Air 737-400 crash on 1 January resulted in the death of all 102 on board. Within days the DGCA stepped up ramp checks of commercial aircraft in Indonesia and temporarily grounded aircraft that failed the spot checks.

DGCA director of the airworthiness and certification office Yurlis Hasibuan says that ramp checks carried out by the body once a month prior to the Adam Air crash had been stepped up to once a week.

But the safety inspections are only good as the people carrying them out. Hasibuan says the DGCA has 180 inspectors and is "working to improve our human resources and the standard of our inspectors".

Searching for inspectors

"We need more inspectors, especially in the operations area, and are in the process of recruiting," he says, adding that the DGCA hoped to employ experienced pilots in the airworthiness inspector role. Hasibuan says this year the DGCA will send 40 inspectors for a four-week training programme at Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority.

The European Commission sponsored a conference in Bandung, Indonesia late last month for 90-100 inspectors and other DGCA officials. Speakers included representatives from the European Aviation Safety Agency and representatives from the civil aviation authority in the Netherlands, France and other European countries.

This conference covered three main areas: aviation laws and regulations, training and qualifications of technical personnel and resolution of safety concerns, says an EC official who wishes to remain anonymous. The aim of the conference was to create a dialogue so the DGCA understands what steps it needs to take, says the official.

Another recent EC initiative has been to employ aviation safety consultant Jean-Pierre Ambrosini to assist the DGCA, says the official, who confirms the main reason Europe slapped Indonesia with a ban was because the country failed to meet ICAO standards.

The DGCA, with ICAO's help, is now implementing an approach and landing accident reduction (ALAR) scheme. Most of the crashes in Indonesia have happened during landing and put down to pilot error.

"We are implementing ALAR to teach the pilots how to maintain and stabilise the approach," says Hasibuan. He says the airlines must have a training syllabus focused on aircraft approach and landing and the DGCA is scrutinising how the airlines train their pilots. It has set an end-of-year deadline for all Indonesian airlines to implement a safety management system.

Following the Adam Air and Garuda crashes, the DGCA introduced a new quarterly audit system that puts airlines into one of three categories based on how well they comply with safety regulations.

 
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Adam Air's second crash of 2007, this time at Juanda International Airport, was among those that prompted reform of safety oversight.

In the first audit, the results of which were released a few weeks after the Garuda crash, no carriers were in the top category. Major carriers such as Adam Air, Batavia Air, Jatayu Gelang Sejahtera, Kartika, Manunggal Air Service, Transwisata and Tri MG Intra Asia Airlines were in the bottom category and warned to improve within three months or lose their air operator's certificate. Garuda, meanwhile, was in the second category.

Since the new auditing system was introduced, the DGCA has revoked the air operator's certificates of six airlines, says Hasibuan. But these were operators either with small aircraft or carriers that were already voluntarily grounded for financial reasons.

But since that first audit, standards have improved and there are no longer any airlines in the bottom category. Garuda today is in category one and Adam Air is in category two. Hasibuan says the DGCA has been getting even tougher: any airline that falls into category three has its AOC suspended immediately, he says.

A year after the Garuda crash, Indonesia appears to be making a greater effort to improve its air safety, but it cannot afford to let off the pressure.