International Concerns Regarding Southeast Asian Aviation

Alexandra Piechowicz

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2020

Aviation accidents, though rare, occur all over the world. However, the relatively high frequency of airplane disappearances and fatal incidents in Southeast Asia has been a primary cause of concern within the industry. Most recently, on October 29, 2018, a Boeing 737 Max 8 operated by Indonesian airline Lion Air crashed into the Java Sea off the coast of Jakarta. Just thirteen minutes into a scheduled hour-long flight, all 189 passengers and crewmembers aboard the aircraft lost their lives. Almost immediately, speculation arose regarding the cause of the accident as well as questions regarding the common occurrence of Indonesian aviation disasters.

“Hotspot” for Aviation Problems

Southeast Asian airlines are no strangers to accidents. Between March 2014 and March 2015, 492 people died, went missing, or were presumed dead, while flying aboard Asian airlines within Asia. The 492 fatalities came from just four incidents. The total world aviation fatalities for the years 2011, 2012, and 2013 were 372, 388, and 173 respectively.

Indonesian airlines have a particularly harrowing history. Lion Air, a low-cost carrier, experienced several incidents between 2002 and 2006 ranging from minor to fatal. In April 2013, another Lion Air Boeing 737 crashed into the Java Sea off the coast of Bali, Indonesia. Miraculously, all 108 passengers and crew members survived. On December 28, 2014, AirAsia Flight QZ8501 crashed into the Java Sea off the coast of Borneo with 162 people on board. There were no survivors. Since 2000, around forty-five major aviation incidents have occurred in Indonesia in contrast with the thirty-five plane crashes between 1950 and 1999. Only in 2001 and 2017 did no major incidents occur in Indonesia.

Additionally, Malaysian airlines have accounted for a substantial amount of fatalities as well. On March 8, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 carrying 239 passengers en route to Beijing after taking off from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, went missing with no conclusive evidence or answers regarding its disappearance. To this day, the plane and its passengers and crew have not been located. A few months later on July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 with 298 people on board disintegrated in the sky over eastern Ukraine while flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

International Safety Concerns

Governments all over the world responded accordingly to the frequency of aviation accidents in the east. In April 2007, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gave Indonesia’s civil aviation authority a “Category 2” rating. A “Category 2” rating indicates that the country did not have the necessary laws or regulations to ensure that air carriers were complying with minimum international standards or the country’s civil aviation authority was deficient. In June 2007, the European Union (EU) issued a prohibition that prevented fifty-one Indonesian airlines from flying through European airspace as a result of the airlines’ lenient safety standards.

On August 15, 2016, the FAA restored Indonesia’s civil aviation authority rating to “Category 1” for complying with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards. In June 2018, the EU finally lifted the ban that it imposed on Indonesian airlines in 2007 for further complying with international standards. However, following the latest Lion Air incident, the Australian government ordered officials and contractors to cease traveling on Lion Air until a cause was determined.

A Regulatory Emergency

Most aviation safety concerns in Southeast Asia can be attributed to poor regulation in a sector that is growing exponentially to serve high demand in an area of the world with very high population. Following the most recent Lion Air tragedy, industry members have attested to Indonesia’s lax airline regulation. According to Danag Parikesit, president of the Indonesia Transportation Society, the whole country has only around two-hundred air safety inspectors, which poses a huge problem with air traffic increasing 20% annually for the past five years. Parikesit also explained that the country should focus less on blaming pilots and operators and more on improving its regulation.

As more information has emerged from the investigation of the crash, concerns are glaring. The aircraft involved had previously experienced problems with its airspeed indicator during its last four flights. The aircraft had been cleared for takeoff for all three days. While Lion Air is considered a “low-cost” airline, there is no excuse to cut corners with respect to safety measures. The Indonesian Transportation Ministry has begun auditing Lion Air’s operations and safety standards in response. The Ministry had previously given Lion Air an ultimatum in April 2017 to comply with its orders by the end of that May or to face “crippling sanctions.”  The demands included an increase in aircraft personnel on each flight, an increase in the availability of standby planes, a limit on shift lengths, and an improvement of customer service.

In efforts to force compliance, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has created IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) to evaluate the management and control systems of airlines all over the globe, offering incentives for airlines and regulators that pass the inspections. Following the FAA’s downgrade of Indonesia to “Category 2” in 2007, the Indonesian Civil Aviation Authority had to “bring their aviation system into compliance with ICAO standards in areas such as technical expertise, trained personnel, record keeping or inspection procedures.”

Other Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines regained “Category 1” status in April 2014 after being downgraded to “Category 2” for six years. Philippine Airlines, as well as many other airlines in the Asia Pacific region, has invested billions of dollars to ensure modern aircrafts, innovative technology, and advanced safety and warning systems. These airlines have also worked to improve pilot and light crew training as well as employee evaluation programs.

It is difficult to comprehend the gravity of the situation from across the globe. The United States is not immune from Southeast Asian airline accidents as evidenced by the Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crash upon landing in San Francisco in July 2013. Planes cross through international airspace every second of the day, making proper regulation and compliance a flagrant concern for governments and passengers worldwide.