ON OCTOBER 29th a Boeing 737 MAX 8 airliner, one of the newest and most technologically advanced passenger planes in the world, crashed into the Java Sea shortly after leaving Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. If, as is feared, none of the 189 passengers and crew aboard Lion Air Flight 610 survived, the crash will become the second deadliest in Indonesia’s history. It is also the first involving a MAX aircraft, which only entered service last year. Speculating on the causes at this early stage is both unhelpful to investigators and disrespectful to victims. Most aircraft losses stem from a web of technical, environmental and human factors, the nuances of which take months to unearth. But, as they get to work, investigators will inevitably have Indonesia’s poor air-safety record at the front of their minds.
The Aviation Safety Network, a website that tracks aviation accidents around the globe, had recorded 15 fatal air crashes in Indonesia this decade prior to the loss of Flight 610. The figure rises to 56 when non-fatal incidents are included. That so many planes should encounter difficulties in Indonesia is partly down to three peculiarities of the country: its vast population of 260m, its heavy dependence on air travel to connect the thousands of islands that make up its territory and its challenging terrain and weather conditions. With Indonesia forecast to become the fourth-largest aviation market in the world by 2030, up from tenth today, some experts have long feared that the country is putting growth in traffic before safety. Lion Air, its largest low-cost carrier, had already suffered a dozen major incidents since 2002, one of which involved fatalities.
That said, aviation-safety standards did seem to be improving in the country. In June the European Commission lifted its decade-old ban on Indonesian carriers, praising the country’s improved regulatory environment for airlines. The International Civil Aviation Organisation, the United Nations’ aviation body, sounded a similar note last year, when it increased Indonesia’s air-safety ranking to 55th from 151st out of 191 countries. Also last year, Lion Air was added to the IOSA Registry, a list of airlines with good air-safety compliance. Against this backdrop, Indonesians had expected to see air-crash statistics gradually improve. Many thought that the latest generation of Western-built aircraft were the least of their concerns. Lion Air Flight 610 shows that the country may still have a long way to go before flying becomes as safe as it is in the West.
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