The Sriwijaya Air crash last month that killed 62 people has prompted fresh scrutiny of Indonesia’s civil aviation sector, which is already reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, analysts said.
The accident, which followed a string of others over the past 20 years, including the Lion Air crash that killed 189 passengers and crew in October 2018, could spook many travelers, who may now think twice before flying smaller airlines, they said.
However, the analysts said that despite the concerns, one cannot expect Indonesians to skip air travel altogether because their ways of getting around quickly in the vast island archipelago are highly limited.
“Many Indonesians rely on inexpensive air travel,” said Shukor Yusof, founder of the Malaysian aviation consultancy Endau Analytics. “They have little choice but to fly on what’s available.”
Volodymyr Bilotkach, associate professor in air transport management at the Singapore Institute of Technology, said: “Rather than shunning air travel altogether, passengers may avoid smaller airlines or older aircraft.”
Indonesia’s commercial aviation industry has grown rapidly over the past few years thanks to affordable fares and a growing middle class that prefers to travel by air.
The Sriwijaya Air accident, in which a Boeing 737-500 crashed into the Java Sea minutes after taking off from Jakarta on Jan 9, may put off some travelers but it does not mean that Indonesia’s aviation sector will not grow over the long term.
Though the aviation safety record leaves much to be desired, Indonesians will continue to take to the skies as it is the easiest and fastest way to travel around the country where efficient public transport infrastructure remain scarce, analysts said.
Twenty-six days before Sriwijaya Air’s Boeing 737-500 crashed into the sea after leaving Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, the 27-year-old aircraft passed an airworthiness inspection. The cause of the crash remains unknown.
Indonesia has the world’s fourth largest population, more than 260 million, who live across more than 6,000 islands. The country’s expanding economy, rising incomes and liberalization of air transport have boosted the number of domestic air travelers.
The International Air Transport Association has predicted that the country’s air passenger market will become the fourth largest globally by 2039, the Jakarta Post said.
“Indonesia is the (Southeast Asian) region’s largest air passenger market due to its population and geography,” Shukor of Endau Analytics said. “But growth of domestic airlines is stunted by poor air transport infrastructure and lack of skilled professionals.”
Bilotkach said Indonesian aviation is becoming safer but still falls short of world standards. But he acknowledged that there have been fewer air disasters in the country in the past decade than in the one before that.
Richard Aboulafia, vice-president of Teal Group, an aerospace and defense market analysis firm in the United States, said Indonesian air safety had come under “a great deal of criticism” in the recent past.
According to the Aviation Safety Network, Indonesia recorded 45 fatal aviation incidents from 2000 to 2019. The European Union banned all Indonesian airlines from 2007 to 2018. In 2007 the US Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration lowered its safety evaluation rating for Indonesia to Category 2.
In the second decade of this century much work was done to improve the country’s aviation safety level, Bilotkach said. Indonesian authorities have enforced several policies to improve air safety, including more stringent regulation, more frequent inspections and improved pilot training.
The EU lifted its ban on Indonesian airlines in 2018 after Indonesia met international safety standards. Likewise, the US Federal Aviation Administration raised Indonesia’s rating to Category 1 in 2016 after the regulator assessed that the country had complied with International Civil Aviation Organization safety standards.