Missing flight QZ8501: Some key questions that demand answers

Missing flight QZ8501: Some key questions that demand answers
The body of 19-year-old AirAsia flight victim Jou Brian Youvito arriving at the Adi Jasa funeral home in Surabaya yesterday to join that of his 53-year-old father Jou Yongki. The ongoing blame game over the plane crash has exposed possibly serious gaps in Indonesia's air safety rules and procedures.

The blame game has gathered speed more than a week after Indonesia AirAsia Flight QZ8501 went down with 162 people on board.

While this may not seem productive right now, it exposes possibly serious gaps in Indonesia's air safety rules and procedures, which is a good thing if the problems end up getting fixed.

Indonesia's Transport Ministry made a shocking revelation last Friday - that Indonesia AirAsia did not have permission to fly from Surabaya to Singapore on Sundays, including the Dec 28 morning that Flight QZ8501 crashed.

The airline's chief executive officer, Mr Sunu Widyatmoko, has denied this, but the authorities have suspended the carrier's flights on the route as they probe how it was flying on a day for which it did not have a permit.

Then came another controversy. Did the pilots of QZ8501, which crashed amid rough weather, receive a weather update and briefing before take-off?

Indonesia's Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency had reportedly said the airline collected the weather report at 7am - about 90 minutes after the plane left Surabaya's Juanda International Airport at 5.35am.

The airline has said it receives regular updates from the weather agency's website, and these reports are printed out and kept by pilots.

This is not acceptable, said an official from the Transport Minister's office. The ministry does not require an airline to pick up a weather report physically, but there must be discussion between the pilots and a flight operations officer to ensure advance planning and to prepare for scenarios that may occur during a flight, said Mr Hadi Djuraid.

Transport Minister Ignasius Jonan, who visited the Indonesia AirAsia office recently, reportedly spoke in a "high-pitched, angry tone" after an airline director suggested that there was no need for a pilot to have a weather briefing before take-off.

"When we have regulations, you must comply with them; don't attempt to violate them. I can revoke your licence," Mr Jonan was quoted as saying by Indonesian news portal Kompas.com

This, in turn, sparked protest from Indonesian pilots.

Pilot Sardjono Jhony Tjitrokusumo said of the minister's comments: "Don't make things up and say pilots are at fault if they don't undergo briefing. It is not part of the required procedures... There is no such thing as pilots being briefed before a flight."

Pilots told The Straits Times that while there are no global guidelines for this, it is common practice for them, when flying out of the home base, to stop at the flight operations centre about an hour or so before departure. Here, they are given a weather report and updated on information such as recent checks or maintenance the aircraft may have undergone, or any sensitive cargo on board.

The flight path, as well as the amount of fuel required, is also decided, taking into account the expected weather patterns.

Alternative airports, apart from the departure and landing points, are also discussed in case an emergency landing is needed.

Said a senior pilot: "The pre-flight briefing is important, first of all, because it may be the first time the captain is meeting his co-pilot. In an emergency, how we work and communicate with each other is critical and may make the difference between life and death.

"Planning the flight path, as well as possible scenarios that may occur and how these can be potentially dealt with, is also important so that if something does happen, you are mentally prepared."

Some questions demand answers. If there are clear rules and procedures in place, why are these being flouted by airlines? Who is ensuring compliance? If there are no rules, why not?

On the issue of flying permits, how come the air traffic control - which gives clearance for departure - does not know if the flights are even permitted in the first place?

One hopes that the ongoing probe will help fix flaws in the system. The safety of air travellers depends on it.


This article was first published on Jan 7, 2015.
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