Why is Indonesia prone to plane crashes? Explainer

Indonesian Navy personnels and Indonesian Rescue members carry debris of Sriwijaya Air flight SJ-182, which crashed to the sea, as they arrive at Tanjung Priok port in Jakarta, Indonesia, January 10, 2021. Reuters/Willy Kurniawan

Jakarta: Saturday's plane crash in Indonesia, in which a Sriwijaya Air Boeing 737-500 carrying 62 people plunged into the Java Sea shortly after takeoff, has once again cast the limelight on the safety of the country's aviation industry.

Indonesia's aviation record is one of the worst in Asia, with more civilian airliner passenger accidents since 1945 than any other country in the region. Past accidents have been attributed to poor pilot training, mechanical failures, air traffic control issues and poor aircraft maintenance.

While experts say there have been many improvements in recent years, the latest crash has experts questioning the true progress of Indonesia's aviation oversight and regulation.

Why has Indonesia had so many plane crashes?

It's due to a combination of economic, social and geographical factors.

In the early years of Indonesia's aviation boom, after the fall of Suharto in the late 1990s opened the economy following decades of dictatorships, there was little regulation or oversight of the industry.

Low-cost air carriers including Lion Air which saw one of its planes crash in 2018, killing 189 people flooded the market, enabling flying to become a common way for many to travel across the vast archipelago nation, which has many areas that still lack efficient or safe transportation infrastructure.

According to data from the Aviation Safety Network, Indonesia has had 104 civilian airliner accidents with over 1,300 related fatalities since 1945, ranking it as the most dangerous place to fly in Asia.

The United States banned Indonesian carriers from operating in the country from 2007 to 2016 because they were deficient in one or more areas, such as technical expertise, trained personnel, record-keeping or inspection procedures. The European Union had a similar ban from 2007 until 2018.

Why is Indonesia prone to plane crashes? Explainer
Investigators check debris of Sriwijaya Air flight SJ-182, which crashed to the sea, at Tanjung Priok port in Jakarta, Indonesia, January 10, 2021. Reuters/Willy Kurniawan

Have things improved?

Yes, they have.

Engagement with the industry has significantly improved and oversight has become more rigorous, aviation expert and editor-in-chief of AirlineRatings.com Geoffrey Thomas told The Associated Press.

That includes more frequent inspections, stronger regulation of maintenance facilities and procedures, and better pilot training, he said.

The US Federal Aviation Administration granted Indonesia a Category 1 rating in 2016, meaning it determined that the country complied with International Civil Aviation Organization safety standards.

Why did the latest crash happen?

Its too soon to tell. Experts said there could be several reasons, including human error, the planes condition and poor weather in Jakarta, where the plane departed from.

Fishermen in the vicinity of the crash said they heard an explosion, followed by debris and fuel surrounding their boat. But heavy rain impaired their vision and they were unable to see much more.

Sriwijaya Air has had only minor incidents in the past, though a farmer was killed in 2008 when one of its planes went off the runway while landing due to a hydraulic issue.

The airline's president director, Jefferson Irwin Jauwena, said the plane that crashed, which was 26 years old and previously used by airlines in the United States, was airworthy. He told reporters that the plane had previously flown on the same day.

But experts said an investigation is needed to determine whether the plane was in fact fit to fly.

When will we know more?

Officials said they located the wreckage site and the plane's black boxes on Sunday. Authorities are currently working to retrieve the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder from the sea. Materials pulled from water, including the black boxes, could provide some insight into what happened.

But the investigation could take weeks, likely months, said Indonesian aviation consultant Gerry Soejatman.

Indonesia is expected to lead the investigation, with international observers typically welcomed as well. There should be an interim report from Indonesia's National Transportation Safety Committee within a month, Soejatman said.

The analysis will start with that report," he said.

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