The Sriwijaya Air Flight 182 Crash and Indonesian Aviation Safety Standards

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            The year of 2021 has just started, with the aviation industry still mired in the doldrums of the Covid 19 pandemic. The first fatal aviation accident happened in Indonesia with the Flight 182 from Sriwijaya Air on January 9th, 2021 just four minutes after takeoff from Jakarta and falling into the Java Sea, killing all 62 people (50 passengers and 12 crew) on board the aircraft. No survivors were found and this puts the Indonesian aviation safety standards in question until the cause of this accident is determined.

The Accident

Figure 1.1 provides a summary of the short flight and the final location achieved by the aircraft where the wreckage was found.

Figure 1.1 – Map locating Jakarta and the trajectory of flight SJ182, which crashed in the Java Sea on Jan 9th, 2021

(https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/indonesia-divers-closing-in-black-boxes-sriwijaya-air-crash-13935850)

Figure 1.2 – Flight 182 – Accident Summary (Source)

The aircraft involved in the accident was a Boeing 737-524, Serial Number 27323, with an age of more than 26 years. This aircraft operated in the USA from 1994 until it was delivered to Sriwijaya Air in 2012.

Figure 2 – Picture of the aircraft B737-524 involved in the accident

( https://www.jetphotos.com/photo/10012362 )

The Boeing 737-524 is an older version aircraft initially produced by Boeing as part of the 500s series in the late 80s, and this version has a good safety history, with about 390 aircrafts of this model delivered by Boeing. Despite it being a Boeing 737, the aircraft is not the same as the Boeing 737-Max, which was involved in two catastrophic accidents that grounded the entire fleet of this model.

            The Sriwijaya Air is an Indonesian airline that started operations in 2003 and was operating with 19 aircrafts, of which 6 aircrafts are Boeing 737-500s (including the one in the accident). Prior to this accident, Sriwijaya Air was involved in a few other incident cases and one fatality.

The Investigation

The investigation of this accident is still in the preliminary stages and it is still too soon to determine what transpired aboard Flight 182. It is expected that when an accident happens the authorities, community, and press require an explanation as to why the accident occurred. From the investigation point of view, the Indonesian authorities have located the casing of the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) and the Flight Data Recorder (FDR).  Other aircrafts parts are still being recovered and the investigation is still in progress with a preliminary analysis expected by middle of February 2021 or longer depending on the recovery of the aircraft parts. It is still not clear if the CVR will provide enough information as the memory unit of it was still missing.

Initial airworthiness conditions of the aircraft Flight 182 were checked, and the aircraft was considered to be in an airworthy condition and was approved by the authorities in December 2020. The aircraft was stowed away in storage from March 2020 to December 2020 before resuming flights at the end of December 2020. The accident is too recent and many questions are still being evaluated to seek the answers as to why the Flight 182 has crashed into the Java Sea few minutes after departure. The investigation specialists will look for deficiencies like human errors, aircraft condition, maintenance records, technical issues and weather conditions for example to explain the cause of this accident.

History of Accidents in Indonesia and Aviation Safety Standards

Appendix 1 shows a short summary of the major fatal accidents that happened in Indonesia from 1991 up to the present time, resulting in about nine major accidents in this period, with the Lion Air accident in 2018 which was the first one with the new Boeing 737-Max. The list of accidents and major incidents are still high as Figure 3 shows, which reveals that the number of fatal accidents were very high from 2000 to 2015 with 2009 being the highest since 1946.

Figure 3 – Fatal accidents per year in Indonesia

( https://aviation-safety.net/database/country/country.php?id=PK )

The aviation safety in Asia has had good figures in the recent years, though the numbers in Indonesia are not that good when compared with other countries in this region. Since 1945, a few more than 100 civil aircraft accidents happened resulting in the death about 1300 people. A prime example of this condition was the banning of Indonesian airlines from being able to fly to and from the United States from 2007 to 2016, and to and from Europe from 2007 to 2018 due to issues with aviation safety standards.

The Indonesian authorities and companies worked hard for many years and managed to reverse this image in some way and made considerable improvements in their aviation safety standards. Following the history about the safety standards in the Indonesian aviation industry and a new accident involving a local airline, it might cause concerns to raise again until the issue about the crash is clarified.

The Indonesian aviation industry grew quickly in the last 20 years to cater to its high population and to support the need to fly to and from the Indonesian islands. It is estimated that the number of passengers in 2000 was about 10 million and that in 2018 it was 115 million, a significant growth that generated the opening of numerous airlines in the country, and consequently the quality of its safety standards was unable to keep up with magnitude of the speed of growth the industry experienced.

As mentioned above, the Indonesian authorities and companies worked hard together to improve safety standards and the implementation of the ICAO standards in country to ensure that Indonesia is able to establish the flights again to the USA and Europe. Nevertheless, based on the number of fatal accidents in Indonesia since 2000 it is clear that much work is still needed to place Indonesia in the same league as Japan for example, which is another Asian country with 5 fatal accidents since 2000, a huge difference in safety culture and actions as compared to Indonesia.

Nonetheless, the aviation industry in Indonesia is above average when compared to the other countries in the Asia Pacific region as indicated in Figure 4, the ICAO universal oversight audit program continuous monitoring approach (USOAP CMA).

Figure 4 – ICAO universal oversight audit program continuous monitoring approach (USOAP CMA) Asia Pacific

(https://www.icao.int/APAC/RASG/APAC%20Safety%20Report/1908.2991%20ICAO%20Annual%20report_Final.pdf )

The Indonesian aviation industry and its safety culture are again at the center of focus after this accident which requires proper investigation and explanation that would ultimately provide improvements for the global aviation safety standards.

This accident certainly highlights some concerns for the global aviation industry considering the fact that many aircrafts were in storage due to the Covid 19 and the resumption of these aircrafts in service may represent some additional operational risk. Therefore, the authorities must pay special attention to this issue and implement additional requirements to ensure the current level of safety in aviation is not compromised.

Appendix 1 – Flight 182 summary and Indonesia accidents history

(https://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2021/01/12/sriwijaya-flew-old-planes-and-neglected-routes-to-become-no-3-carrier.html)

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