Silver lining in Jakarta's unsafe skies

Silver lining in Jakarta's unsafe skies
Authorities planned to airlift the dead from the site but continuing bad weather Wednesday had so far made this impossible.

The third fatal airplane crash in Indonesia in the past eight months, which took the lives of all 54 people aboard a Trigana Air flight in the mountainous province of Papua nine days ago, has cast an even darker pall on Jakarta's safety record. Experts point out, for instance, that 59 Indonesian carriers out of 63 are banned from European skies, and 40 fatal air crashes have happened on Indonesian soil since 2001.

For perspective, just six occurred in Britain over the same period. Indonesia is less airworthy than lesser neighbours like Laos and Myanmar. A passenger on board an Indonesian carrier is 25 times likelier to die in a crash than one in an American airliner.

Against this record, one might wonder why a carrier like Trigana, whose planes or pilots have caused an average of more than a crash a year in its 23-year existence, hasn't been shaken up yet. An economy that has seen 10 years of sustained growth, a mountainous landscape strung along a lattice-work of 17,000 islands, and wealthier people preferring air travel over ferries have driven demand. The result is a perfect storm of recurrent tragedy threatening Indonesian skies.

Growth and modernisation are ironically worsening instead of catalysing improvements in the safety of air travel in Indonesia. The easy answer would be to point to the usual Third World culprits such as laxity in enforcing laws and corruption. Indeed, the failure of officials to police Indonesian skies adequately is among the most cited reasons heard.

But there is more to safety woes than graft and poor policing. Indonesia's blotchy record is a function of runaway growth that has compromised standards - something bedevilling many rapidly developing countries. These include the overnight appearance of a scrum of largely budget carriers, badly-kept planes, poor pay, an acute shortage of pilots, inadequate training and, until recently, the lack of a long-term safety game plan.

The silver lining is that a reversal is possible. Jakarta has, even prior to the Trigana crash, agreed to a safety plan following an independent international audit. Investing in better planes and maintaining them well, training, and hiring more pilots under threat of suspension when a crash happens are immediate steps Jakarta should consider. The effort has to go beyond carriers to review airport operations as well, including overtaxed air traffic controllers. A vital component is leadership, for which there is domestic precedent. Until nine years ago, national carrier Garuda Indonesia had a poor reputation for safety. But when Mr Emirsyah Satar took the helm in 2004 and made safety a priority, the airline changed. Today, Garuda is in the top 10 list of the world's safest carriers. Indonesians do not have to look abroad for an exemplar as they strive to turn around the current state of affairs and make their skies safer for all.

This article was first published on August 25, 2015.
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