2007 – A Disastrous Year for Travelling
The first day of 2007 was marked by a jetliner going missing, in what some later saw as a sign of things to come: It was the first in what was to be a long line of accidents. The disappearance of the Boeing 737-400 aircraft operated by Adam Air tragically left 102 victims listed as “missing” for weeks, before the government confirmed that they had died after crashing into the Majene Sea off West Sulawesi.
Another deadly accident took place on March 7 when a Boeing 737-400 operated by flag carrier Garuda Indonesia failed to make a proper landing in Yogyakarta. The pilot ignored 15 alerts and the pleas of his co-pilot that he was coming in too fast as Alvin Darlanika Soedarjo continues to explain.
On the ground, several survivors lamented that rescuers had difficulty reaching the victims during the emergency.
Both accidents made media headlines and caused an uproar abroad, especially in Australia, five of whose citizens were among the 21 killed in the Garuda crash.
All eyes turned to the Transportation Ministry. Many charged the ministry had been slow to enact crucial safety procedures.
In the midst of the controversy, then-transportation minister Hatta Radjasa was replaced by Jusman Syafii Djamal, former president director of the ailing state aircraft manufacturer PT Dirgantara Indonesia (PT DI).
Hatta, with the help of his party, moved up the political ladder to become State Secretary.
Under Jusman, the ministry has made several moves in an apparent effort to gain control over the situation.
Over the years, air traffic in Indonesia has increased thanks to the liberalization of the air transportation sector. This has resulted in a burgeoning number of low-cost carriers.
The rise in competition has ultimately lowered safety standards, as airlines face pressure to cut operational costs to gain market share and eke out a profit.
The transportation ministry at one point ordered all airlines not to use airplanes more than 20 years old so as to reduce risks.
Many observers, however, believe the problem is related to airplane maintenance, not age.
After hastily conducting a safety audit, the ministry announced on March 22 that not one of Indonesia’s 54 registered airlines was fully compliant with safety regulations.
Not even Garuda made it into the top safety category, falling instead into category II, signifying that it was partly compliant with standards.
Thirteen other passenger airlines were placed in category II and seven rated as category III, or non-compliant with safety regulations.
Of the 34 commuter, charter and cargo airlines, 20 made it into category II while the rest fell into category III.
The rating announcement was greeted with an uproar from both the public and the airlines. Most of the airlines, however, took actions to improve safety. Some even hired foreign consultants.
These improvements were noted when the transportation ministry announced the results of its second audit on June 25.
While only Garuda made it into category I, there were 19 passenger airlines in category II. One company, Jatayu, had its airline operator certificate revoked.
Among the commuter, cargo and charter airlines, 23 made it into category II, 11 were put in category III and three airlines had their certificates revoked.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono also called for improvements, establishing an ad hoc team of experts in January called the National Team for the Evaluation of Transportation Safety and Security (EKKT). They were tasked with investigating high-profile transportation mishaps.
The team, led by former Air Force chief of staff Air Marshal (ret) Chappy Hakim, found that many safety procedures had been neglected.
Among other moves, EKKT recommended that the air transport industry and government put “the right people in the right place”, renovate airports, enforce sanctions, and make the National Transport Safety Committee (KNKT) into a more independent body reporting directly to the President.
EKKT pointed out that other transportation industries were also neglecting safety.
“There is no agreed-on perception of safety standards among users,” EKKT spokesman Oetarjo Diran said.
Poor safety records came back to haunt the industry on July 6 when the European Union imposed a blanket ban on Indonesian airlines, prohibiting them from entering the airspace of the 27-country bloc.
At the time, none of the airlines were serving European routes, although Garuda was planning to resume flights to Amsterdam.
The ban came as a nasty shock to the government, and a somewhat unusual one, since it prohibited not only passenger airlines but cargo, charter and commuter flights.
The EU appeared to be seeking reassurance that there was no collusion between operators and regulators, especially in issuing airworthiness certificates.
Several carriers have allegedly been cutting corners on maintenance, for instance by patching worn airplane tires instead of replacing them and by using inferior spare parts.
Under the ban, European travel agents are issuing warnings about Indonesian flights. Several discussions in Brussels have failed to budge the EU from its position. There has been, however, no report of a significant drop in European travelers to Indonesia.
Saudi Arabia planned to impose a similar ban. However, Jakarta managed to persuade the country to send its auditors to directly check Indonesian airlines.
Currently only Garuda flies to the kingdom.
The Saudi government finally relented on Aug. 2. That was an important decision for Garuda, which flies roughly half of Indonesia’s 200,000 haj pilgrims there annually. The other half are carried by Saudi Arabian Airlines.
On Oct. 1, the transportation ministry announced three more airlines to have reached category I in addition to Garuda: Mandala Airlines and charter airlines Air Fast and Premier Airlines.
Another blow to the Indonesian air transport sector came late this year, when fire ravaged the domestic arrival terminal of the Polonia International Airport in Medan, North Sumatra on Dec. 1.
It was the second fire there in two years.
Despite its international status, the airport lacked prevention and fire equipment which would have enabled the blaze to be detected and extinguished much earlier.
Indonesia’s water-borne transportation sector has also been plagued by tragedies.
The Senopati Nusantara ferry sank on the Java sea near Jepara, Central Java on December 30, 2006. More than 300 passengers died. Less than two months later the Levina ferry caught fire near Jakarta’s Tanjung Priok seaport. The Feb. 22 disaster also claimed more than 300 lives. The Levina’s death toll rose three days later when the burned-out hulk sank suddenly, killing two TV cameramen and two investigators researching the blaze.
The Levina crew was found to have neglected safety procedures during the voyage. Defective lifeboats are believed to have added significantly to the fatalities.
The lack of order within the ferry business even spills over onto land. The Merak-Bakauheni ferry ports in Banten and Lampung sometimes experience chaotic traffic congestion, especially during bad weather when the waves are high and the vessels cannot dock properly.
Although the situation is not particularly dangerous, a lack of sufficient facilities has created a bottleneck of trucks and passengers on the road.
Due to the surge in travelers around Idul Fitri, no trucks carrying non-basic goods may use the ferries for inter-island transport then.
Discipline is part of the problem. Many ferries do not depart on time and many trucks carry excessive loads.
The railway system operated by state-owned PT Kereta Api, which dates back to the Dutch colonial era, also suffered from numerous mishaps.
A Jan. 15 accident involving the Bengawan train on the Purwokerto-Banyumas border claimed five lives. Three people died on March 26 when the Mutiara Timur train hit a passing car in Margorejo, Surabaya.
Most of the country’s rail disasters are collisions or derailments caused by employee negligence, aging railway lines and trains, and carelessness on the part of people crossing railway tracks.
Jusman has pledged to prioritize the safety and renovation of rail transport.
A new rail law opens the way for private companies to become train operators. It gives PT Kereta Api a grace period of two years to prepare itself for competition.
However, some observers doubt investors will be interested.
In 2008, the Transportation Ministry needs to apply and enforce the recommendations of the ad-hoc transportation team in order to lower the number of accidents. Even if the number of carriers and passengers increases, it does not mean that accident rates should rise.
The public has to be reassured that flying with local carriers or using other forms of local transportation is safe. Accidents will happen, but they should not be caused by ignorance or indifference.