Trigana plane crash: How safe are Indonesian airlines?

Story highlights

  • Indonesian airlines have notoriously weak safety records
  • The country's unique geography, an archipelago consisting of 17,000 islands, has propelled a boom in airlines

(CNN)The crash of a Trigana Air flight on Sunday has raised old questions about the safety of Indonesian airlines, a sector that's growing rapidly but plagued by notoriously poor safety standards.

It is the third crash of an Indonesian plane in the past eight months, and the incident epitomizes much of what's wrong with the swiftly-growing industry.
    A small carrier which sells flights for as little as $60, Trigana flies short-haul routes between the many islands in the archipelago nation.
    Before Sunday's crash, 19 accidents had occurred on Trigana flights during the carrier's 23-year history, according to the Flight Global database.
    Despite the alarming safety record, the airline was still allowed to operate.
    Indonesian airlines have some of the worst safety records of any carriers in the world. Arnold Barnett, an MIT statistician who specializes in airline safety, told the New York Times in December that the death rate in airplane crashes over the past decade in Indonesia was one in every million passengers, 25 times the rate in the U.S.
    Safety standards for Indonesian carriers have historically been so subpar that in 2007, the EU banned all of the country's airlines. That's since been relaxed somewhat but only four airlines -- Garuda Indonesia, Airfast Indonesia Ekspres, Transportasi Antarbenua and Indonesia Air Asia -- out of the dozens of operators, are allowed to fly into EU airspace.

    Fast growing sector

    The plane crashed in mountainous terrain in the remote eastern Papua.
    The country's unique geography has propelled a boom in airlines that serve passengers looking to travel between its 17,000 islands, something that aviation regulators have struggled to keep up with.
    "One of the major reasons why you are seeing the increased number of accidents is the exponential growth in the Indonesia market itself because more people are flying instead of taking ferries," said Daniel Tsang, founder of consultancy Aspire Aviation.
    At the same time, the proliferation of low cost carriers and rising disposable incomes in Indonesia means air travel is more accessible than ever. Indonesian GDP has grown by 6% or more in the last three years, according to the World Bank.
    "By 2034, it is expected to be the sixth largest market for air travel," International Aviation Transport Association (IATA) CEO Tony Tyler said in March. "By then some 270 million passengers are expected to fly to, from and within the country. That's three times the size of today's market."

    Safety standards lagging

    A Trigana Air Service's ATR42-300 twin turboprop plane, the same type of aircraft that went missing on Sunday.
    But the number of accidents is growing swiftly as well.
    Tyler underlined the significant safety issues, calling safety the biggest concern for the development of aviation in Indonesia.
    "Indonesia has had at least one hull loss every year since 2010," Tyler said. "In the International Civil Aviation Organization's (ICAO) Universal Safety Oversight Audit Program (USOAP), Indonesia was assessed as below the global average. The U.S. Federation Aviation Administration downgraded Indonesia to Category 2 in its International Aviation Safety Assessment program."
    A Category 2 rating means the country lacks laws or regulations necessary to oversee air carriers in accordance with minimum international standards, or that its civil aviation authority is deficient in one or more areas, such as technical expertise, trained personnel, record keeping or inspection procedures.
    "This airline that is involved, it has had 18 crashes or accidents," Tsang said. "Which regulator in their sane mind would allow an operator to continue like that? That problem should've been seen. Their regulatory oversight is falling behind the curve."
    CNN aviation analyst Mary Schiavo pointed out that Trigana's prior crashes suggest better pilot and crew training is needed.
    "It's about maintenance but it's also about training and safety oversight, and three-fourths of this airline's previous fatal accidents were what's called C-FIT, controlled flight into terrain. That means the pilots don't have enough training in their landing sequences and they need more training and more oversight," Schiavo said.

    Opportunity for turnaround

    Indonesia's Transport Minister confirmed on Monday that a missing plane carrying 54 people has crashed.
    Under international pressure to reform, Indonesia has made a few, if slow, steps in the right direction.
    After the crash of a military plane that killed 130 people in June, Indonesian president Joko Widodo said increased scrutiny over the aviation industry would be a priority for the government. Earlier that month, the Indonesian authorities cooperated with the U.S. federal government to set up the Aviation Working Group, aimed at improving airline best practices.
    "There are signs of progress and improvement and they do indeed have a plan of action but observers are concerned that the pace of change could be [sped] up," Andrew Herdman, head of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines said. "More resources are needed but of course governments face many demands on their resources."
    "Further investment is needed in infrastructure," Herdman said. "Many of the airports in Indonesia are dealing with congestion well beyond their design capacity. Some of the smaller airports, and this most recent tragedy involved short haul service between two remote airports in inhospitable terrain in Papua -- airports in that terrain need upgrading of navigation aids and other operational enhancements."
    While improvement can be costly and difficult, it is not impossible for airline operators. One bright spot in the industry is Garuda Airlines, a carrier that is frequently hailed as a turnaround success story.
    In 2005, ex-banker Emirsyah Satar took over as CEO of the national carrier, which at the time was saddled with debt and had a terrible accident record, transforming it by replacing the aging fleet and streamlining routes.
    It listed on the Jakarta Stock Exchange in 2011, and this year, it ranked eighth out of the world's top 100 airlines, according to Skytrax, the independent UK commercial airline rating company.
    "They have modernized significantly in terms of upgrading their fleet but also by really doing the International Air Transport Authority operational safety audit," Tsang said. "They [adopted] the industry's global safety standard. That got them removed from the EU ban."