Jakarta suspends 61 flights of 5 airlines

Indonesia's Transport Ministry has suspended 61 flights of five airlines after it found them to be lacking flight permits based on a four-day audit at five airports this week.

It also found 11 air transport officials guilty of negligence in allowing these breaches to happen, and has suspended or transferred them out of their positions.

The audit and new measures came after it was discovered that the Indonesia AirAsia Flight QZ8501 that crashed on Dec 28, a Sunday, did not have a permit to fly from Surabaya's Juanda airport to Singapore on Sundays.

The ministry's audit found that the country's largest privately run airline, LionAir, accounted for the largest number of breaches. It had 35 flights grounded this week for lacking permits while its subsidiary Wings Air had 18 flights grounded, followed by Garuda Indonesia with four.

One TransNusa flight was grounded, as well as three from Susi Air, a chartered plane company founded by Maritime and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti.

"We will deliver a sanction on them - they cannot fly," said Transport Minister Ignasius Jonan yesterday at a press conference.

The airlines will have to apply for permits for the grounded flights if they want to resume them. The minister promised that it would not take longer than a day for new permits to be given, provided that the applications met all the conditions.

To increase transparency, Mr Ignasius said, by the end of this month an online system will be in place that will track scheduling of flights and validity of permits and routes, as well as perform an evaluation of slot coordinators.

While the measures show the ministry to be acting swiftly to improve its oversight of the aviation sector, they also lend weight to analysts' criticism of the sector.

Aviation law analyst Ruth Hanna Simatupang, a former crash investigator, said that while the country's aviation safety record has improved tremendously in the last five years, the sector "is still a jungle".

"We hear of reports of radar failure, of lack of coordination between air traffic controls and of lack of training for personnel," she told The Straits Times. "Each time we gave our recommendations, we are not told whether they were carried out."

Improvements in the sector, after two air crashes in 2007 that killed 130 people, have seen bans on national carrier Garuda in Europe lifted although other Indonesian carriers are still banned.

However, near accidents have continued to happen. In December 2012, radar failure due to a blackout at Jakarta's Soekarno- Hatta airport caused chaos, with then Transport Minister E.E. Mangindaan revealing that there was a near miss of a collision between two LionAir flights.

That incident raised concerns over outdated infrastructure and lack of proper backups as it was found that an automatic backup power supply had failed to work. Pilots have said there were other incidents at the airport, which overtook Singapore's Changi as the world's 13th busiest last year.

To help Indonesia and its airlines regain rights to fly to Europe and the United States - where all its carriers are banned - Boeing entered into a Memorandum of Agreement with Indonesia to cooperate in regulatory, industrial, infrastructure and personnel development as well as safety and operational assessments.

For the aviation sector to improve, however, a mindset change is needed, said analysts.

"There is a culture of not accepting criticisms and lack of attention to small details," noted aviation analyst Gerry Soejatman.

Audits by international agencies exposed how aviation authorities here did not organise simple things like having a proper filing system, providing ample working space or resolving safety concerns. "It may seem minor, but taken together, it can lead to something major," said Mr Gerry.

Another concern is graft, in particular officials taking money in return for airlines getting desired routes or priority to land. Said Ms Ruth: "If you accommodate corrupt characters or don't weed it out, then this industry will never change."

Acknowledging that there were many shortcomings, Mr Ignasius said: "If I don't do this now, there won't be a significant change."


Additional reporting by Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja

This article was first published on Jan 10, 2015.
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