Despite Tragedies, Indonesia’s Air Safety Is Improving Fast

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(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In 2020, civil aviation accidents — thanks largely to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic — dropped to zero for the first time. There's a grim inevitability that the first crash to break that record should happen in Indonesia.

The loss Saturday of Sriwijaya Air Flight 182 shortly after takeoff from Jakarta is just the latest in a miserable toll of air accidents for a country that’s long been synonymous with lax aviation safety.

If Indonesia’s record wasn’t so notorious, it’s possible that the 2018 crash of Lion Air Flight 610 would have drawn more attention to the flaws in the Boeing Co. 737 MAX’s control systems, five months before a second accident in Ethiopia forced a worldwide grounding.

Despite that, Indonesia has been making genuine and dramatic progress in air safety over the past decade. While good reasons remain to be more cautious about flying there than in many other countries, things have changed substantially from the days when aviation was so unsafe that its airlines were banned from the European Union, as they were between 2007 and 2018.

Worldwide, air accidents are relatively rare. On average, there are only two to four per million departures, a rate that’s slowly trended down over the past decade. It used to be the case that Indonesia was in a very different class from other countries: In 2009, there were 18.35 accidents per million departures, compared with a global average of 4.11.

That situation resulted in part from the disorganized land grab kicked off by deregulating the formerly nationalized air sector after the Asian financial crisis and fall of the dictator Suharto in the late 1990s. The result was a boom in new airlines staffed by poorly trained pilots and engineers, supervised by ineffective regulators and accident investigators. 

An aviation law passed in 2009 to reverse this situation has gradually been getting results. A confusing mass of three air navigation agencies has been reduced to one, minimum standards have been set for training and fleet size to shut out the most inexperienced operators, and whistleblower protections have been set up.

That appears to be paying off: After dropping sharply in the early part of the decade, accident rates were below the global average in 2018 and 2019. Indeed, they were lower even than in the U.S. and the EU.

It’s a similar situation when you look at the basic safety setup. The International Civil Aviation Organization audits countries’ safety systems under eight metrics. For much of the past decade, Indonesia’s have still been clearly inadequate, with an average score well below the 60% needed to be considered satisfactory. By 2017, however, the country was matching that level on every metric and was above the global average on six out of eight categories. 

Why, then, does the country still seem to have more than its fair share of accidents? One underappreciated factor is that it simply has more than its fair share of flights, with the 11th-largest number of annual departures globally. Thanks to its population of 267 million, the world’s fourth-largest, and enormous number of small domestic routes, Indonesia accounts for about twice as many flights as the United Arab Emirates, home to Emirates and Etihad Airways PJSC, or more than its neighbors Thailand and the Philippines put together.

A large number of those flights are likely to be unusually challenging whatever happens on the regulatory front. Indonesia is a mountainous archipelago of some 18,000 islands in the stormy tropical monsoon zone straddling the Pacific and Indian oceans, meaning heavy rain, troublesome cloud conditions and other hazards are far more common. One study last year, led by Agus Promono from the School of Aviation at the University of New South Wales, found that poor weather was a factor in 58% of accidents in Indonesia, compared to 8% in the U.S. and a global average of 21% to 26%.

Outside the main island, Java, and the denser corners of Sumatra and Sulawesi, it’s also thinly populated and poor. Papua, with about 4.3 million people, accounted for as many accidents between 2010 and 2016 as Java, with 145 million. That’s in large part due to the fact that most flights there are carried out by small turboprop planes, on under-developed routes between remote airports in difficult terrain, leading to a higher risk of pilots becoming disoriented in bad weather.

There’s still room for improvement. Interaction between the cockpit crew was still the largest factor identified in Promono’s study, which he attributed in part to culture: A respect for hierarchical authority and a less-assertive communication style can become safety issues if they prevent a co-pilot from challenging a more senior pilot’s mistaken action.

That’s clearly not an immutable factor, though. Neighboring Singapore, which scores similarly on measures of respect for hierarchy, has one of the best aviation safety records in the world. A study last year of 792 students at Chinese flight schools found that training and experience have a dramatic effect on these measures, a factor that may contribute to that country’s excellent safety record. Clearly, any air accident is one too many. Still, Indonesia’s progress is evidence that there’s no great mystery to making flying safer. Building on the advances already made will mean that the country may one day be able to shed its reputation as the world capital of dangerous flying.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Guardian.