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IN FOCUS: Lion incident places spotlight on Indonesian air safety again

The Lion Air Boeing 737-800 crash on 13 April is the third major aviation incident to happen in Indonesia within the span of a year.

The new-built aircraft was on a scheduled service from Bandung to Bali when it crashed into the sea, about 50m (164ft) ahead of runway 09 at Ngurah Rai International Airport. The impact resulted in the aircraft's fuselage breaking in two, between the wings and the tail. All 101 passengers and seven crew survived.

Investigations have commenced, but the incident again puts the spotlight on the issue of air safety in Indonesia.

Indonesia's last high profile incident occurred as recently as May last year, when a Sukhoi Superjet 100 on a demonstration flight crashed into Mount Salak, killing all 45 on board.

Although the aircraft's crew made several key mistakes, an investigation report showed that Indonesian air traffic control was unaware that the Superjet was an airliner because it had been coded as a Sukhoi Su-30 fighter - the database being used did not include the twinjet. The misleading entry influenced a crucial decision to allow the aircraft to descend to a low altitude in a mountainous region, shortly before it struck terrain.

A year earlier, a Xian MA60 operated by Merpati Nusantara was attempting to land at Kaimana when it crashed. The investigation report blamed the crew's inexperience and also suggested a complete disregard for safety protocols.

While regulations require a visibility of 5km for a visual approach to Kaimana, the crew ignored this, and attempted to land with a visibility of just 2km. The aircraft crashed into the sea, killing all 19 passengers and six crew.

These incidents, and several others over the years, suggest that an industry culture based on safety has yet to take root in Indonesia.

Indonesia has been notorious for its poor airline safety record. In 2007, the European air safety authorities put a ban on all Indonesian carriers from operating to the EU after the country failed an ICAO audit. The same year, the US Federal Aviation Administration downgraded Indonesia to a category 2 rating, placing it in the same league as some of Africa's poorest nations.

In 2009, the EU ban was lifted on four Indonesian carriers - flag carrier Garuda, Mandala Airlines, Airfast Indonesia and Premiair.

The Association of Asia Pacific Airlines' technical director Martin Eran-Tasker believes that Indonesia is on track to get its rating upgraded by the US FAA this year.

This is because of the good work the country has done including the overhaul of its regulatory authority and strengthening its oversight on airlines, such as placing limits to prevent the emergence of airlines with low passenger capacity, he says.

Even though the country's safety standards have largely improved, the strong unprecedented growth in Indonesia raises the question of whether it has enough pilots and technicians to handle the growth, analysts say.

Boeing's Pilot and Technician outlook projects that Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, will require more than 47,000 new commercial airline pilots and more than 60,000 maintenance staff over the next 20 years to support air travel growth and new aircraft deliveries.

Lion, which started operations in 2000, also made the news with record aircraft orders. Last month, it placed an order for 234 Airbus A320 family aircraft, not too long after it committed to 380 737 family aircraft in 2011.

Nonetheless, Lion remains on the EU's banned list and has a spotty safety record, with six incidents in the last 10 years. These include the loss of five airframes.

Lion's most serious incident happened in 2004, when one of its Boeing MD-82 crashed at Indonesia's Solo airport, killing 23 passengers and two crew. The aircraft had overran the runway in a rainstorm, hitting obstacles.

Another notable incident took place in 2009, when one of its MD-90s landed at Batam airport without its front landing gear extended, resulting in damage to the undercarriage. A broken nose water spray deflector, caused by a pre-existing crack, had prevented pilots from extending the landing gear.

"For any carrier that is expanding quickly, it will need to make sure it has the right people with the right level of experience and training," says Tasker.

Indonesian politician Marwan Jafar told reporters that airline crashes happening in the country point to a fundamental problem that needs to be addressed.

"We're sad, concerned and devastated by this news. We feel ashamed as a nation," he was quoted, commenting on the Lion incident.

As the Indonesian aviation industry continues to boom, the country's authorities must make it a priority to ensure that a culture based on safety lies at the heart of the industry.

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