Citing signs of foul play in allowing AirAsia flight QZ8501 to operate without proper permits, the Transportation Ministry ordered on Monday the suspensions of several airport and control tower officials.
The Transportation Ministry's acting director general for air transportation, Djoko Murjatmodjo, said that Transportation Minister Ignasius Jonan had ordered PT Angkasa Pura I (AP I), the operator of Juanda International Airport in Surabaya, and state navigation operator Airnav Indonesia to suspend officials deemed responsible for allowing AirAsia to take off without the correct permits.
"According to the direction given by the minister, all officials responsible for allowing AirAsia to operate outside its approved flight slots will be given sanctions, including those who work for Airnav and AP I," Djoko said in a press conference.
In response to the instruction, AP I immediately suspended its operation manager and apron movement control (AMC) supervisor.
"The suspension is solely based on the instruction given by the minister to ease the investigation process," the firm's corporate secretary Farid Indra Nugraha said.
Flight QZ8501, carrying 162 people to Singapore from Indonesia's second-biggest city, Surabaya, was officially announced missing two and a half hours after it took off at 5:36 a.m. on Dec. 28.
Victims as well as debris from the plane were first spotted two days later in Karimata Strait, which separates the islands of Belitung and Kalimantan.
A few days after the crash, the ministry decided to suspend all AirAsia flights between Surabaya and Singapore, describing the flight as illegal.
"Investigations are underway to ascertain how the airline could fly without the ministry's knowledge," Djoko said, adding that similar sanctions would be imposed on any ministry officials implicated.
AirAsia Indonesia is licensed to fly from Surabaya to Singapore every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. But in October, the airline revised its schedule to fly on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, without the required permission from the ministry.
The change in the schedule is believed to have exacerbated the already overcrowded Surabaya-Singapore route, lessening the space for pilots to manoeuvre to avoid threatening storms.
Authorities have said that part of the route, among the busiest in the region, was covered by cumulonimbus clouds, a type of cumulus cloud associated with thunder storms and heavy precipitation, on the day the plane went down.
AirNav has said that air traffic control (ATC) was about to approve flight QZ8501's request to climb to a higher altitude when the plane vanished.
The request could not be immediately granted as there were already six aircraft flying above flight QZ8501. Around three minutes after the request was sent , AirNav agreed to approve it, but the plane could no longer be contacted.
Despite the irregularities, AirNav has yet to suspend any officials as requested by the ministry.
Airnav president director Bambang Tjahjono said that the firm had not received an official letter recommending the suspension and that the firm would continue to follow the investigation process conducted by the government.
Aviation analyst Arista Atmadjati said that during the peak season, such as in December, a lot of airlines requested additional flight slots to cater to increasing demand for travel, resulting in crowded air space.
Arista called on the ministry to expedite the investigation into speculation that a backroom deal had taken place regarding additions to or changes in flight slots.
"During peak season, stricter measures are needed to ensure that all airlines, including low-cost carriers, are operating according to the regulations," he said.
Arista said that Indonesia met less than 60 per cent of the requirements needed before its aviation safety level could be raised by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
The FAA downgraded Indonesia's aviation safety level to category 2 seven years ago because of a poor safety record.
With air travel becoming more and more affordable over the past decade, Indonesia posted an average of 13.8 per cent and 19.3 per cent growth in domestic and international passenger numbers between 2009 and 2013, respectively, according to the Transportation Ministry. The rapid increase comes amid a lack of well-equipped domestic airports, trained professionals and navigation infrastructure.
1. AirAsia Indonesia is licensed to fly from Surabaya to Singapore every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. But in October, the airline revised its schedule to fly on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, without the required permission from the Transportation Ministry.
2. On occasion, AirAsia Indonesia pilots have not been directly briefed by the flight operation officer (FOO) prior to departure.
3. The pilots of flight QZ8501 had not received the required weather report from the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG). AirAsia received the BMKG report at 7 a.m. on Dec. 28, the day of the crash, after the plane's departure at 5:35 a.m.
4. The departure time of flight QZ8501 had been brought forward from 7 a.m. to 5 a.m.
5. Just before losing contact, the pilot told air traffic control that he was approaching threatening clouds, but was denied permission to climb to a higher altitude because of heavy air traffic.