IN JAKARTA – MR CHRISTIAN von Strombeck flips open his laptop, logs on to Google Earth and a few key strokes later is watching a thin blue line tracking planes across the virtual landscape of the Indonesian province of Papua. That line is recording the progress of one of his small single-engine planes, on a supply mission from Jayapura to Mulia in the Central Highlands.
Mr. Strombeck and his wife Susi Pusjiatuti run a tiny charter airline called Susi Airlines. Given some of the remote areas it operates in, they have invested US$15,000 (S$23,000) in satellite tracking technology that lets them monitor their planes, almost to the minute and down to the last 50m.
If an aircraft operator of that size thinks it needs such equipment, why don’t the larger airlines? That question might in fact be directed at Adam Air, whose ill-fated Boeing 737-400 jetliner is still missing 10 days after it disappeared from radar screens over the rugged western Sulawesi coastline on Jan 1.
The loss of the aircraft and the 102 people aboard during a flight from Jakarta to the North Sulawesi capital of Manado has raised new questions about safety standards for at least 19 new airlines, many of them budget carriers, that have proliferated since deregulation five years ago.
Many light planes have vanished into thin air, dense tree cover closing over them like a green tomb. And while that does not usually happen to a plane the size of a Boeing 737, it is not unknown.
One of the great aircraft mysteries is the loss of a Strategic Air Command B-52 bomber near Bermuda in 1961, which was never found despite a search across 450,000 sq km of ocean. But a comprehensive Internet search shows only two cases where large commercial aircraft have vanished without a trace over the past 50 years.
One was a Flying Tiger Super Constellation, with 107 people aboard, which disappeared between Guam and the Philippines in 1962, defying a search covering 220,000 sq km by 48 aircraft and eight ships.
The other was a Varig Airlines Boeing 707, that vanished on a flight between Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro in 1979, carrying a five-man crew and 153 paintings.
The Adam Air plane was either close to or over land, but it was out of range of the nearest traffic control radar when it hit a violent storm front. That left searchers with only a distress signal from its emergency locator beacon, detected by Singaporean controllers, to record its last known position.
Under normal circumstances, other planes could have homed in on the signal, but because of rumours that the wreckage had already been found, it appears that no concerted airborne search was mounted until after the beacon’s batteries died 24 hours later.
Tracking planes by satellite may have made all the difference. Susi Airlines is using an iridium satellite phone network for tracking planes, which provides the infrastructure used for ground-to-air communications, blended with proprietary software from service provider Blue Sky that can be laid out on a Google Earth display.
It costs a mere US$6 an hour to operate, well within the budget of larger airlines and what should be regarded as an essential piece of equipment in a country where some aircraft – albeit a lot smaller than a Boeing 737 – have been missing for decades across the vast archipelago.
Look no further, for example, than the tragic death of former president Megawati Sukarnoputri’s first husband, an air force lieutenant, whose plane disappeared near Biak island, off the northern coast of Papua, 37 years ago.
More than 300 US Air Force World War II aircraft missing in the area between the Philippines and New Guinea are still being found. In 1995, for example, a mining company helicopter chanced on the remains of eight crewmen in the wreckage of an air force cargo plane that had been lying on a rocky shelf in Papua’s rugged Central Highlands since 1945.
In 2005, searchers using a drone from Singapore spent four weeks searching for an Indonesian Air Force helicopter, which disappeared in northern Papua – the scene of many light aircraft crashes. Two months ago, a small German-made Volkow helicopter disappeared on a flight across water from Manokwari to Nabire, leaving nothing in its wake.
But the real issue taxing the authorities in the wake of the Adam Air tragedy is safety. Transport Minister Hatta Radjasa summoned airline owners to a meeting on Jan 9 and told them that enforcement agencies could not be everywhere and they had to take more responsibility for their own safety standards.
Participants later told of a testy exchange between Mr Rusdi Kirana, the youthful boss of accident-prone budget carrier Lion Air, and Mr Frank Reuneker, president of well-regarded charter firm Airfast, after the latter asserted that airline executives should be held to account for accidents, not just pilots and mechanics.
Mr Kirana pronounced himself ready to go to jail if negligence was ever proven, but then he launched into a tirade about the behaviour of passengers themselves, including the theft of life vests, and how it made life stressful for his staff. Charter companies, he told Mr Reuneker, did not have to worry about such things.
Speaking to a gathering of foreign correspondents on the same day, transport safety official Martono could not remember a single occasion when an airline was prosecuted for negligence. But that is not all that unusual. In general, the emphasis anywhere is always on finding the cause of a crash and how to avoid it in future.
What makes Indonesia unusual, however, is the fact that the results of accident investigations rarely get a public airing. In the United States and a great many other countries, accident reports are widely disseminated, often along with transcripts from the cockpit voice recorders of the doomed aircraft.
Mr Martono said it is the transport minister, presumably following the advice of the directorate-general of air communications, Indonesia’s much-criticised regulator, who decides what should be revealed to the travelling public. The policy up to now, he said, is ‘be transparent, but not completely transparent’.
Whatever that means, it is not very reassuring. After all, with the important exception of the current Adam Air disaster, the National Transportation Safety Committee has recorded 73 domestic airline accidents across Indonesia since 2001, with the loss of 201 lives. Since 1945, there have been 84 fatal crashes.
The highest number of deaths in a single incident over the past decade was when 145 people were killed in the September 2005 crash of a Mandala Airlines Boeing 737-200 as it took off from Medan’s Polonia Airport. The blame fell on everything from engine trouble to a heavy shipment of durian.
Medan was also the scene of the country’s worst-ever air disaster, ranked 19th in world aviation history, when a Garuda Airlines Airbus A300 went down in 1997, with the loss of 234 lives. And in a sign of the times, Indonesian newspapers ran pictures the next day of then-president Suharto happily playing golf.
Last week, in what Transport Society researcher Danang Parikesit described as a potentially ‘history-making’ announcement, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono issued instructions that future investigation reports be made public. It remains to be seen if bureaucrats will do his bidding.