JAKARTA, Indonesia » When U.N. auditors visited Jakarta in May to rate the country’s aviation safety, they came to a troubling conclusion: Indonesia was well below the global average in every category and scored just 61 percent in airworthiness.
The audit reinforced the fact that Indonesia, which scored far worse than impoverished neighbors such as Laos and Myanmar, has a chronic problem with aviation safety.
Although in recent years there were glimmers of hope that aviation safety might be improving, the crash of AirAsia Flight 8501 into the Java Sea on Sunday has renewed concerns that Indonesia cannot keep up with the ever-growing popularity of air travel as incomes rise and low-cost carriers multiply.
What role, if any, the failings of Indonesia’s aviation system may have played in the crash of Flight 8501 may not be known for weeks. But in a country of 17,000 islands, where cheap flights are replacing the ferry journeys that Indonesians use to take across the archipelago, the chances of dying on an Indonesian plane, while rare, are unacceptably high, experts say.
Arnold Barnett, a statistician at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who specializes in airline safety, said that the death rate in airplane crashes over the past decade in Indonesia was 1 per million passengers who boarded. That rate is 25 times higher than that in the United States.
"To assert that the disparity is only a coincidence or manifestation of bad luck would be preposterous," Barnett said.
Investigators looking into Flight 8501, which went down with 162 people onboard, will zero in on the minutes after 6:12 a.m. Sunday, when the pilot asked for permission to change course to avoid stormy weather. Soon after, contact was lost with the Airbus A320.
By Wednesday night, with recovery teams fighting turbulent weather and rocky seas, only seven bodies had been recovered, four men and three women. Contrary to some news reports, there were no confirmed sightings of the plane’s fuselage, much less the flight data recorder.
What is known so far about the ill-fated flight offers only vague clues to why it plunged into the sea. Flying in stormy conditions around 40 minutes after takeoff from Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, on a quick hop to Singapore, the pilot requested permission to change course.
Ground controllers granted the request to veer left but denied the request to ascend to a higher altitude, which was reserved for another AirAsia aircraft.
Then nothing. The aircraft sent no distress signal. That bodies were discovered intact in the sea has led to speculation that the aircraft may have hit the water in one piece.
The uncertainty over what happened to their loved ones has weighed heavily on family members waiting for news at the Surabaya airport. When the first bodies appeared off the coast of Borneo on Tuesday afternoon, 2 1/2 days after the plane disappeared, family members wailed in grief.
Lince Gonimasala, 39, fainted into the arms of Surabaya’s mayor. Her 13-year-old son, Adrian Fernando, had been on the plane, as well as her brother and sister-in-law, and their 4-year-old son.
"I’m still hoping," Gonimasala said Wednesday.
Adrian’s grandfather, John Gonimasala, 70, a retired general goods trader from the Moluccan islands, held open his palms. "Disasters are God’s will," he said. "I know they’re gone."
Like most of the passengers, the Gonimasalas were members of Indonesia’s emerging middle class, en route to Singapore for post-Christmas and New Year’s celebrations.
Many were among the first generation in their family who could afford such a luxury, avatars of a demographic shift that has produced an airline boom in Indonesia. With a population of 250 million people, Indonesia is one of the world’s fastest-growing markets for commercial jets, with more than 600 planes on order.
Yet Indonesia has long ranked at or near the top of every list of developing countries with an aviation safety problem. It has a reputation for weak airline safety practices, a shortage of experienced pilots, lots of mountains presenting hazards for low-flying planes, and rapidly rising air travel as the economy booms.
It is one of nine countries listed as failing a safety assessment by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. (The other countries are Bangladesh, Barbados, Curagao, Ghana, India, Nicaragua, St. Martin and Uruguay.)
One symbol of its dismal aviation record is a mountain near Jakarta that has been the site of a half-dozen fatal crashes by planes large and small over the past dozen years.
"There’s no doubt Indonesia has a particular challenge, because it’s trying to make up ground, it’s growing faster, and there’s a well-known problem of pilots being poached to work elsewhere," said Martin Craigs, the chairman of the Aerospace Forum Asia, a nonprofit industry group based in Hong Kong.
Insurance companies charge Indonesian airlines nearly double the global average for premiums per passenger because of their poor safety history. Airlines in only a handful of countries in Africa and Latin America pay more, while most other Asian carriers pay considerably less.
The European Union currently bars 62 Indonesian carriers from flying to Europe for safety reasons. That used to include the Indonesian subsidiary of AirAsia, but the European Union has cleared Garuda, Indonesia AirAsia and a few other carriers over the past several years as they have worked to improve safety.
AirAsia, which has a strong safety record, owns 49 percent of its Indonesian affiliate. Because Indonesia bars airlines with majority foreign ownership from operating domestic routes, AirAsia entered the market by acquiring a stake in a small Indonesian carrier, Awair, then changed the name, replaced senior management and bankrolled rapid expansion.
Peter Marosszeky, a senior aviation research fellow at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, said it was too early to conclude that the AirAsia crash was the result of a mistake by either the Indonesian authorities or the Indonesian pilot of the lost plane. The aircraft went down in a powerful storm, and many factors could have been involved, he cautioned.
With an economy that has been steadily growing nearly 6 percent a year, Indonesia is investing heavily to improve and expand its airports and provide them with the latest equipment. Surabaya is one of the country’s largest and most modern airports.
Experts say even if Indonesia builds state-of-the-art aviation facilities, it will have trouble keeping up with demand for pilots.
Pilot shortages are especially acute in developing countries, as affluent carriers in industrialized countries tend to hire away the most experienced, best trained pilots around the world.
Airlines have long relied on militaries to do much of their pilot training for them, hiring veterans by the thousands. But growing reliance on unmanned drones has reduced the pipeline of military pilots just as the Asian air market has taken off, with its many long-haul routes requiring large numbers of pilots.
Many experts remain skeptical of Indonesia’s prospects to improve safety quickly.
The Indonesian agency responsible for regulating airlines, a division of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, "is understaffed, not terribly well run and under-resourced," said Roger Mulberge, a former commercial pilot and aviation safety consultant based in Bangkok. "They’re doing their best, but they’re trying to make bricks without straw."
On Wednesday night, the first two bodies were flown back to Surabaya. The families of the other 160 people aboard the flight are still waiting.
"The most hurtful is the uncertainty," said the Rev. Agustinus Tri Budi Utomo, a Catholic priest who was waiting at the airport with many of his parishioners. "They are hoping, they’re waiting for a miracle."