Monday, December 29, 2014

Indonesia's Troubled Aviation Safety Past

At the Adam Air crash scene. US Navy photo
If the wreckage of missing Asia Air Flight 8501 is found at the bottom of the sea, as Indonesia's search and rescue chief, Bambang Soelistyo suggests, let's hope that the nation of islands does more than it has in the past to thoroughly investigate the disaster. In a statement to reporters on Monday, Soelistyo admitted Indonesia does not have the equipment to search underwater for the Airbus A-320.  

This does not sound good, in light of how the Indonesians frittered following the New Year’s Day crash of Adam Air Flight 574 in 2007.  A Boeing 737 sunk in the Makassar Strait off the west coast of Sulawasi killing all 102 people on board. Three were American, everyone else was from Indonesia. 

A Navy ship in the region, the USNS Mary Sears, pinpointed the debris field within a few weeks and provided the Indonesian National Transportation Safety Committee with the precise location for the cockpit voice and flight data recorders.What happened next still baffles. 

The Indonesians did nothing.  

Mark Rosenker NTSB photo
Mark Rosenker was the chairman at the time of the National Transportation Safety Board, the US safety agency which, while not in charge of the investigation, had an interest because the plane was made by Boeing an American company. 

“Nothing was happening,” Rosenker recalled, describing the pace as frustrating and not just for the NTSB. “I can’t speak for Boeing, but I’m sure they were finding this happening not as efficiently as they would like to have seen.”

Sometime in the Spring, Rosenker can’t remember exactly when, he had a meeting with the Indonesians to see how he could hasten progress. That’s when he learned what was behind the delay. The Indonesian wanted $2 million dollars to pay for the underwater recovery of the black boxes.

The Adam Air accident was largely a domestic tragedy and Adam Air, which was founded by the country's speaker of the house of representatives, held an insurance policy for $2+ million to reimburse the airline. Even so, the Indonesians thought the United States should foot the bill. Rosenker was having none of it.

“This is your responsibility and it seems to be your responsibility to do it,” Rosenker said he told his counterparts from Indonesia.

Another participant in the meeting recalled that Rosenker blew his stack, but that’s not how the former chairman remembers it.  

“I was frustrated. I was disappointed and I was firm,” he told me, “but I don’t blow my stack in public very often.” 

Adam Air FDR photo from Phoenix Intl.
Whether leaving Washington empty handed, prompted the Indonesians to act, I can't say. Another source suggested the European Union’s inclusion of some Indonesian airlines on a list prohibiting them from flying into the EU was the trigger.  Either way, by June, the American underwater recovery company, Phoenix International was hired and on the scene. 

Steve Saint-Amour, who worked with Phoenix at the time said the location data from the USNS Mary Sears was "critical.” The search that took six months to launch took just seven days to conclude. And even though Phoenix had the boat, sonar devices and retrieval equipment and they were right over the debris field; 5 to 6 thousand feet below, Adam Air did not want them to bring up anything else but the boxes. 

It is worth nothing the following facts
  • Indonesia is a country with 237 million people
  • Its population is spread across thousands of islands
  • Residents of these islands are highly dependent on air transport
  • Nearly two dozen airlines are registered with the Indonesian government
Which is to say that this nation has many reasons to want a vibrant air transport industry but at this point in time it is rife with problems. This was acknowledged by its presence on the European Union black list and its downgraded status on the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration International Safety Assessment Program.

An air travel boon should be good for residents and the nation's economy. To promote and encourage it though, the government must also figure out how to afford to foster safety . Otherwise it will pay dearly for the accidents that are sadly and surely, still to come. 

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