The Transportation Ministry has been placed in the spotlight for its quiet response to flight delays that have left thousands of Lion Air passengers stranded at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Tangerang, Banten, since Wednesday evening.
Transportation Minister Ignasius Jonan's late response caused unrest among the public, who questioned the double standard applied on budget carrier Lion Air and AirAsia, which had its route permit suspended immediately following the crash of flight QZ8501 in December last year.
The government has been perceived as unwilling to slap harsh sanctions on Lion Air given the fact that President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo swore in Lion Air co-founder Rusdi Kirana, a National Awakening Party (PKB) top politician, as a member of the Presidential Advisory Board (Wantimpres) last month.
"There's no connection [between the severity of the sanctions placed on Lion Air and Rusdi's position as one of the President's advisors].
We will question the management soon," Minister Jonan said on Friday.
He also said the ministry had suspended the airline's permit to operate new routes until an evaluation of the delayed flights was complete.
The minister also called on Lion Air to improve its management of the delayed flights to prevent miscommunication between the airline and its passengers.
At least 2,000 passengers have been impacted with a series of flight delays since Wednesday night, paralysing Soekarno-Hatta airport's Terminal 3 as many passengers vented their anger by infiltrating the supposedly restricted airport tarmac area and surrounding several of Lion Air's parked aircraft.
Such a dragging situation is a setback to the recent aggressive expansion of the airline's parent company, Lion Group, including striking two of the world's largest plane-order deals worth US$46 billion and plans for a 2016 initial public offering.
Tulus Abadi of the Indonesian Consumers Protection Foundation (YLKI) said the government did not place enough sanctions on Lion Air.
He said the ministry should suspend Lion Air's permit to serve all its routes.
"Most of the complaints we've received over the years have come from Lion Air passengers, ranging from complaints about delayed flights, missing luggage to booking issues," Tulus told The Jakarta Post. "The government, however, has yet to take action against Lion Air."
Just a week after the crash of AirAsia flight QZ8501, which claimed the lives of all 162 passengers and crew on board, Minister Jonan issued a regulation to change the airline ticket price formula to prevent budget airline operators from offering unrealistically low fares, in an attempt to improve safety.
The measures also included an overall review of the business and technical operations of all airlines operating in the country and the suspension of flights and dismissal of officials under the ministry.
Jonan also decided to end the operation of the Indonesia Slot Coordinator (IDSC) and eliminate summer and winter periods for domestic-slot allocation.
The ministry's director general for air transportation, Suprasetyo, said that the ministry could not suspend Lion Air's routes.
"This is a business problem between the airline and passengers, unlike AirAsia, which failed to meet safety standards," Suprasetyo said. "The government can only take action in accordance with the standard procedures regarding safety and security."
Aviation analyst Gerry Soejatman said the government should review Lion Air's performance to ascertain whether it can competently run its business.
"The airline clearly violated PM 77 as it failed to provide refunds to its passengers and left them stranded for more than one day," Gerry said, citing Ministerial Regulation No. 77/2011 on air transportation providers' responsibilities. "Swift action against their inadequacies should be taken."
Indonesia National Air Carriers Association (INACA) chairman Tengku Burhanuddin said the ministry should look deeper into the problems surrounding the mismanagement of the airline, questioning the airline's management in handling the delayed flights.
"Lion Air's delayed flights not only hurt the passengers but also affected other airlines operating in Terminal 3. However, we should give the government time to evaluate the airline," Tengku said.