AirAsia plane

Analysis: AirAsia crash raises questions over flight preparation

The flight data recorders have been recovered, but events leading up to the crash of Flight QZ8501 in the Java Sea in December are still shrouded in mystery.

The crash of an AirAsia Indonesia (AAI) Airbus A320 in violent storms in the Karimata Straits of the Java Sea has raised a series of questions about standards of practice for flights in the region. The airline lost contact with flight QZ8501 45 minutes into its journey from Surabaya to Singapore on 28 December, after pilots had requested a change of altitude to avoid bad weather in the area.

One issue that has surfaced in the aftermath of the accident is that unlike other Indonesian carriers Garuda, Sriwijaya, and low-cost airlines Lion Air and Citilink, AAI does not have any flight operations officers to brief pilots on weather conditions prior to take-off. While transport minister Ignatius Jonan took AAI to task for not adhering to regulations, the airline's pilots described the reprimand as without substance. Speaking on behalf of the pilots, senior captain Fadjar Nugroho indicated that there was no need for his colleagues to be briefed as they could access the weather information themselves.

AAI acknowledged that its pilots check weather conditions using reports downloaded from the website of the Meteorological, Climatological & Geophysics Bureau. MCGB claimed, however, that QZ8501 did not have a weather report when it took off at 5.35am on the day of the crash. According to its chief, Andi E Sakya, an AAI official received a copy of the weather report at 7.00am, although AAI president Sunnu Widyatmoko has denied this.

Former National Transport Safety Committee investigator Ruth Hanna Simatupang told E&T that FOOs briefing pilots on weather conditions is a standard operating procedure that must be adhered to. Simatupang said there is nothing new about the policy, but that one of the problems in Indonesia's aviation system is that many policies are not implemented. She added that there are many problems in the system that need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Another such issue is that flight QZ8501, which had 155 passengers, six crew and a licensed maintenance aircraft engineer on board, was not supposed to operate on Sundays. While the Ministry of Transport in Singapore had given approval for the airline to operate a daily service on the route, Indonesia's Directorate of Civil Aviation (DCA) in Jakarta had given the green light for the flight to be operated only on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday during the winter schedule, which began on 24 October 2014.

Shortly after receiving the rights, AAI revised its schedule to operate the flight on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday without informing the authorities. A daily service is planned from the start of the summer schedule.

According to Indonesia's acting director- general of air transport Djoko Murdjatmodjo, the carrier did not apply for a change of the schedule, nor was the Ministry of Transport in Jakarta informed. "So the approved scheduled by Indonesia's MOT stands," Murdjatmodjo said.

It was not mandatory for AAI to notify the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore of its revised schedule, but there is a legal requirement for the authorities in Jakarta to be advised.

A further important question that has yet to be answered is how the flight plan that enabled air traffic control at Surabaya's Juanda International Airport to clear QZ8501 for take-off was approved. Each flight plan is very specific and indicates flight number, aircraft registration, point of origin, destination airport, alternative airport in case of bad weather or emergency, speed, altitude, technical equipment on board, number of passengers, pilots' names and aircraft type. Every airline is supposed to have a flight operations officer who files the plan.

How the DCA could have 'missed' this crucial piece of the developing puzzle remains a mystery. Industry practice is for ATC to pass on the flight plan to all civil aviation authorities along the route where the aircraft is scheduled to overfly.

According to MOT, four senior air traffic office staff at AirNav Indonesia who were working at Jakarta International Airport on the day of the crash have been transferred out. Wisnu Darjono, director for safety and standards at AirNav, claims that the four were responsible for allowing AAI to operate the flight.

"The four were not aware that the airline could operate the flights only on the said days for the winter schedule as they had not been advised by their management," Darjono said. He acknowledged that his colleagues at AirNav were at fault for ignoring MOT's directive.

Many have been surprised that the loss of 162 lives and an aircraft has only resulted in four staff being transferred, but officials have so far declined to give details for their decision.

AirNav, which provides air-navigation services, was created in September 2012 by the merger of airport operators Angkasa Pura I and Angkasa Pura II, and the Air Transport Service department.

Questions are also being asked about why MOT was unaware that AAI had revised its scheduled for three months. MOT confirmed that it has suspended two senior officials, but declined to be drawn into giving any details on the matter. It also has suspended AAI's Surabaya-Singapore service indefinitely.

Indonesia's aviation safety has been under scrutiny for many years. The crash was Indonesia's 16th involving a local carrier since September 1975. The European Union took until June 2009 to lift the ban on four airlines, including the country's flag carrier Garuda, to fly to Europe. The other three carriers were Airfast, PremiAir and Mandala Airlines - which has since gone bust. The ban was imposed in 2007 after a slew of fatal crashes involving Garuda and low-cost carrier Adam Air, which had its air operating certificate revoked by the government for safety issues.

Despite the ban being lifted, Indonesia continues to struggle with its safety record. Lax enforcement of policies is seen as a contributing factor. Also, the country is unable to produce enough qualified pilots, engineers, mechanics, air traffic controllers and airport management executives to cope with the growing aviation market.

Exactly a week after QZ8501 disappeared from radar screens, another AAI A320 encountered problems when one engine shut down as the aircraft was taxiing from the gate for a flight to Bandung. The plane returned to the gate and all 120 passengers were asked to disembark.

The number of passenger and cargo carriers operating in Indonesia has been reduced from 51 in 2009 to 36 in 2014, and airlines operating with one or two aircraft were asked to merge. At the same time, a shortage of pilots has prompted the government-backed Merpati Nusantara Airlines, AAI and Citilink to look outside Indonesia to meet their fleet requirements. Despite the lower remuneration package compared to similar jobs in Malaysia and Singapore, the three carriers have succeeded in attracting foreign pilots.

The so called 'black boxes' from QZ8501 have been recovered from the sea more than two weeks after the plane came down in poor weather conditions. The tail section, where the flight data and cockpit voice recorders are located in the aircraft, was discovered on 7 January but the black boxes were missing. On 12 January Indonesian navy divers, taking advantage of calmer sea levels in the area, retrieved the flight data recorder. A day later, the cockpit voice recorder was discovered under heavy wreckage from a wing of the aircraft and brought to the surface. Both devices have been sent to Jakarta for analysis by aviation experts and should provide vital clues to discover the cause of the crash.

Many bodies have already been recovered, but officials believe the majority of the victims are still in the wreckage of the fuselage, which was eventually discovered on the seabed more than 1.5km from where the tail-section was found.

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