WHEN a budget Thai airliner crash-landed and burst into flames at a Phuket airport in September, it caused ripples in Indonesia.
The reason: The pilot was an Indonesian who had worked for two local carriers after retiring from the air force.
The air crash that killed 83 people has indirectly turned the world's attention to Indonesia's aviation industry, raising concerns over the qualification of its pilots and the safety records of its airlines.
The incident was just the latest in a series of air disasters over the past two years in which pilot error was partly to blame.
In January, an Adam Air aircraft crashed off Sulawesi killing 102. Then in March, a Garuda aircraft crashed at Yogyakarta airport, leaving 22 dead and 118 injured.
In February last year, another Adam Air flight from Jakarta to Makassar went missing for four hours before all 145 passengers and crew turned up safely at a remote island hundreds of kilometres off-course.
Concerned about safety, the European Union is still maintaining the ban it imposed in July on all Indonesian airlines from flying to Europe, threatening national carrier Garuda's plans to resume services to Amsterdam next year.
Officials in Jakarta, however, continue to tell the world that the Indonesian aviation industry is shaping up.
Indonesia has 55 airlines. Most emerged after the government deregulated the aviation industry in 1999, with some starting on a shoe-string budget and using 20-year-old aircraft bought second-hand.
Of the 55 airlines, 18 have scheduled flights, three run cargo services and 22 offer charter services on small aircraft carrying up to 30 passengers.
Except for Garuda, the other 17 scheduled airlines, such as Adam Air and Lion Air, are considered low-cost carriers that offer cheap fares for domestic and regional flights.
These carriers undercut the prices of major airlines by using aircraft more frequently, removing first-class compartments and packing in more seats, selling tickets directly via the Internet and cutting inflight services.
"They offer cheaper fares which make it affordable for many Indonesians to travel to far-flung regions," said Tengku Burhanuddin, secretary-general of the Indonesian National Air Carriers Association.
Aviation watchers say that there is now stiff competition among the airlines in this fast-growing sector. Major airlines are expanding, with more destinations and bigger fleets.
Pilot shortage, however, is putting a dampener on growth.
A spokesman for the Federation of Indonesian Pilots, Captain Manotar Napitupulu, said there are 2,500 pilots in the country to fly a total of 523 aircraft belonging to local airlines.
The number is grossly insufficient as the industry needs 4,182 pilots to operate the aircraft, he added.
One Indonesian pilot said that they were also lowly paid compared with their colleagues working for foreign airlines.
More than 200 of his colleagues - which had included Mr Arief Mulyadi, the pilot of the Thai budget airliner One Two Go that crashed in Phuket in September - are now working abroad. They earn between US$9,000 (S$13,000) and US$13,000 a month - four times what they earn back home.
The rapid expansion has also raised concerns that growth has outpaced the supply of trained aviation professionals, regulatory oversight, parts and ground infrastructure.
Civil aviation director-general Budhi Suyitno said he was keenly aware of what needs attention and told The Straits Times the problems were being fixed.
To deal with critical manpower shortages, experienced air force personnel have been recruited as pilots, civilian air traffic controllers and aircraft engineers.
Several airlines such as Lion Air and Adam Air are also buying new aircraft to replace ageing ones.
There is now tighter monitoring by civil aviation officials and airline officials who check daily that airlines comply with safety regulations, security measures and service standards.
Starting this year, the government has been ranking air carriers every three months based on their compliance with safety and other aviation rules.
During the June ranking, only Garuda, which flies to nine countries and 23 Indonesian destinations, entered the best Category 1 while the other 17 airlines with scheduled flights were in Category 2, which means they met minimal requirements.
However, October saw five other airlines - Mandala Airlines, Lion Air, Merpati Nusantara, Wing Abadi and Indonesia AirAsia - joining Garuda in the top tier.
Mr Dudi Sudibyo, an aviation expert who also edits Indonesian aviation magazine Angkasa, disagrees with the move to categorise airlines, adding that "there should be one category only and all airlines must be there if they want to continue flying".
Other analysts also point to the need for better training and retraining of pilots after noting that pilot error has been responsible for many of the mishaps.
Another aspect of aviation safety is the airport itself, whether it is fully equipped for all aircraft to land and depart safely and whether it has enough capacity to respond to air disasters.
Top photo: Mr Budhi Suyitno, Indonesia's civil aviation director general
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