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A missing jet and the truth about Indonesia’s troubled aviation history

For so many years, it came easy to Tony Fernandes, a man who now finds himself at the center of Southeast Asia’s latest aviation saga. The chief executive of Air Asia, which on Sunday lost contact with a commercial jet carrying 162 people, took a company he bought for 35 cents, taking on its $13 million debt, and turned it into an aviation juggernaut. It helped bring budget travel to Southeast Asia. And then it went after the regional jewel: Indonesia.

In the past decade, Indonesia’s middle class ballooned from 80 million to 130 million, a fast-growing demographic speckled throughout the nation’s 17,500 islands, where flying is nearly always the best travel option. “Indonesia is like a planet,” Fernandes, who opened an Indonesian affiliate and, in 2012, bought a local budget airline for $80 million, told the New York Times. “There’s lots of room to grow.”

But for all of its economic potential, Indonesia’s aviation industry remains one of the world’s most hazardous. Numerous accidents and incidents marred the industry’s rapid ascent, and the European Union banned all but five of its 67 airlines from European airspace. The U.S. State Department likewise expressed concern over Indonesia’s aviation practices, and even Indonesia’s civil aviation chief in 2007 called it a “never-ending struggle” to improve the country’s culture and safety practices.  The Federal Aviation Administration ranks it as a “category 2” country for deficient aviation safety, a rating shared by such nations as Ghana and Bangladesh.

“Indonesia has had a questionable safety record. This will once again raise questions about how safe Indonesian airlines are,” Greg Waldron, Asia Managing Editor at Flightglobal, an industry data and news service, told Reuters. “This is the first incident for Indonesia AirAsia, but it will cast a spotlight once again on the entire industry.”

There is no explanation yet for why an Air Asia Airbus A320-200 — which lifted off from the Indonesian city of Surabaya early Sunday for Singapore — went missing. But Indonesian officials now fear the worst. On Monday morning, the head of the Indonesian search agency said his “preliminary suspicion” was that the plane is now “at the bottom of the sea.” He conceded Indonesia doesn’t have the right technology to search the ocean’s floor. “The capability of our equipment is not optimum,” Indonesian official Bambang Soelistyo said, the New York Times reported.

If those suspicions are accurate, ensuing investigations may focus on the confusing last moments before Indonesian air-traffic controllers lost contact with the plane. As the airbus navigated the Java Sea, it encountered a string of violent thunderstorms and big clouds. So the pilot dispatched a request to ascend 6,000 feet and bypass a cloud. But Indonesian air-traffic controllers denied that request — and, minutes later, the plane disappeared without a distress call, The Washington Post’s William Wan and Emily Wax-Thibodeaux reported.

Whether or not that decision contributed to the plane’s demise, it is just the latest catastrophe to rock an aviation industry some say got too big too fast.

It started in the late 1990s with the passage of several deregulation measures. New airlines opened every few months. Between 2000 and 2007, passenger numbers surged at annual rate of 20 percent, according to the Associated Press. By 2011, 60 million Indonesians were flying, according to the Times.

But unfettered growth came with consequences. Many officials, both local and abroad, have long warned that the industry has outpaced Indonesia’s supply of aviation experts, regulatory oversight and equipment. “The industry growth is so fast and it’s not matched by the growth of human resources,” Dudi Sudibyo, who advised the Indonesian president following the disappearance of one commercial flight, told AP in 2007. “There are not enough regulators, flight inspectors or planes.”

That year, one budget airline’s plane investigators later determined was improperly maintained crashed into the sea, killing all 102 passengers aboard. Another flight around that time crashed into a heavily populated neighborhood on takeoff, killing 149 people. Then another plane, this one with Adam Air, broke apart upon landing. No one was injured, and a company spokesman called the occurrence “normal,” AP reported. Months after that, another Indonesian plane overshot a runway and exploded into a ball of flames. Twenty-one of the 140 people aboard were killed.

In the intervening years, it’s unclear how much improvement Indonesia’s aviation services have made. The country’s major hub, Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, was originally built to serve 22 million passengers. But in 2013, it handled more than 60 million, according to the Jarkarta Post — three times the intended capacity. There, music stations and phone calls interfere with air traffic control frequencies. “They have a very old system,” one pilot with Lion Air told the New York Times in 2012, adding instances of dangerous confusion sometime arise. “They know who you are, but they don’t know where you are.”

It was no better in 2013, when a new Lion Air jet carrying 108 passengers crashed into the ocean and splintered into two pieces, injuring 45 people. “This is why they tell you not to fly on airlines from Indonesia,” proclaimed Business Insider.

But such warnings — or crashes — have done little to slow Indonesia’s booming aviation industry. And even Sunday’s tragedy, whatever the cause may be, will not likely keep Indonesians from the skies. How else are they supposed to get around? “If my passengers complain about delays, I say, ‘Go by bus, go by train,'” one Lion Air executive said. “We need them, and they need us.”