Indonesia has had one of the world's worst domestic airline safety records for 30 years, but it has the power to alter that
Garuda Indonesia Airlines has a less bad safety record than the country's domestic and short-haul carriers. Less bad means that, in the past 20 years, Garuda has suffered only three fatal accidents. Stretch the period to 21 years and it has had four.
Given that Garuda is a medium-sized carrier with an all-jet fleet exceeding 50 aircraft, that is not a good record. Many larger airlines with a far higher exposure to risk in mathematical terms have had no fatal accidents in that period, and that is becoming the norm.
Meanwhile, Indonesian domestic carrier Merpati Nusantara Airlines has suffered 14 fatal accidents and a large number of serious incidents in the same period - more than one fatal accident every two years - although it has had a fatality-free period since 2001. Merpati is not alone. Bouraq Indonesia, Dirgantara Air Services, Mandala Airlines and Trigana Air Service have all suffered multiple fatal accidents in the past 20 years. Adam Air, which has been in service only since December 2003, has already had one fatal accident and a hull loss, as has Lion Air, which has been operating since 2000. Indonesia, over the last two decades, has seen 43 fatal accidents to commercial aircraft registered there.
The immediate responsibility for airline safety lies with the carriers themselves. But airlines, with a few exceptions, are products of their environment and the national safety culture. One of the manifestations of a healthy aviation safety culture is a national aviation authority that has sufficient financial resources and fully trained employees to be an effective safety watchdog. That agency must have the power to withdraw airlines' licences when they are found to be operating below the standards required. In theory, that is what Indonesia has in its Directorate General of Air Communication (DGAC). In practice, the DGAC has presided over a consistently disastrous national aviation safety record for more than 30 years. There is no need to go looking for evidence of departmental incompetency - the country's aviation accident record is the proof. No country is stuck with a record like that unless its government just doesn't care. Maybe the government hasn't even noticed, because it has always been like that. If it had noticed, it would have done something about the way the DGAC operates.
Small domestic carriers like Dirgantara and Trigana fly a fleet of turboprop or piston-powered aircraft into many very basic airfields. But although a poor infrastructure does not help aviation safety, good airlines can safely use airfields with badly surfaced, short runways and simple or non-existent navigation aids by choosing aircraft with the appropriate performance to cope. They also have to be resolute in operating only in weather that is good enough. Just a tiny proportion of the accidents Indonesia sees are directly caused by infrastructural problems. Most are caused by technical trouble or human factors.
The most common human failing in Indonesian accidents is crews pushing their luck in marginal conditions given the aids available to them, or bad decisions by pilots. If pilots often make bad decisions, it is necessary to look behind the individual involved to find out how good his or her selection and training was, what the airline standard operating procedures are, and what management attitudes are to pilots who make a decision to divert or return because of bad weather - or not to depart because of minimum equipment list considerations. Those are the issues the DGAC should have been looking at.
Nigeria - another country that has had a dire long-term airline safety record - has just transformed its civil aviation authority, giving it the resources, power and autonomy it needs to be effective. It took three recent jet fatal crashes in 12 months to make the Nigerian government act, but now it has done so. Indonesia is a massive archipelago with 220 million inhabitants. There is no country in which domestic aviation is more important to its success as a society and as an economy. If the Adam Air and Garuda accidents finally jolt the government into action, the 124 people killed in the two incidents will not have died in vain.
Meanwhile, it would be good to see Indonesia's National Transport Safety Commission determine probable causes for the two recent fatal accidents rather than duck the issue, as it did in the case of its inquiry into the 1997 Silk Air Boeing 737-300 crash.