Horror in the skies: The poor safety record of Indonesia and Malaysia’s budget airlines

Poorly trained pilots and slipping safety standards are putting the public at risk. Unless action is taken, it is only a matter of time before another aviation disaster strikes in Southeast Asia’s skies.

by Oliver Ward

Terror gripped the passengers of Air Asia flight D7237 from Perth to Kuala Lumpur. 90 minutes after taking off, passengers describe hearing a loud bang. The Air Bus A330 began “shaking like a washing machine”.

The pilot announced to the 359 passengers that he was “scared” and recommended that they pray. Many passengers sent messages to loved ones. They believed that their death was imminent. One passenger took to Instagram. User, @maesaya posted a video of the scene onboard. The caption read, “I thought I might die”.

Despite the engine fault, the pilot was able to return the Air Bus A330 to Perth. The problem was diagnosed as a blade ingestion. A fan blade had come detached from the engine. Once they had landed, passengers criticised Air Asia’s lack of support. Many passengers had to queue for several hours after their ordeal before they could get another flight. They were offered US$20 vouchers.

Do Asian budget airlines have a safety problem?

The horror endured by the passengers of Air Asia flight D7237 is part of a long list of incidents which have plagued Southeast Asian airlines in recent years. Since 2014 unsettling stories of mid-air safety concerns and crashes have steadily emerged from Southeast Asia’s budget airlines.

Malaysia Airlines flight 370 dominated headlines when it disappeared off the coast of Myanmar. Air Asia flight QZ8501 crashed into the sea due to a “miscommunication” between the pilot and the co-pilot. Pilot error was cited as the reason behind Trans Asia airways flight 222’s crash in 2014. Only earlier this year, a tyre exploded on a Malaysia Airlines flight as it touched down in Jakarta during heavy rain.

In 2014, Southeast Asian and Pacific airlines averaged 2.20 significant accidents per 1 million flights. During the same year North American airline carriers averaged 1.32, European providers averaged 1.91 and North Asian providers managed an impressive 0.67.

As demand increases, corners are being cut

The increasing size of the middle class in the region is increasing the appetite for air travel. In the last 10 years the numbers of passengers have increased by 800%. Low cost airlines carry more than 50% of all Southeast Asian air passengers. There are already plans for Asian airlines to build 10 new aircraft in the next 20 years to keep up with the growing numbers of passengers.

Airlines fight for a slice of the market. But many are sacrificing safety records in exchange for cheaper prices to attract more passengers. The industry has expanded so quickly in the region that training and regulators have been unable to keep up.

Inferior pilot training plagues the region’s budget airlines

In the case of Air Asia flight QZ8501, a soldering crack in the rudder limiter made it dangerous to perform rudder movements at high speed. The fault was known to Air Asian employees because the in-flight computer had been issuing warnings about it for months. Rather than fix the issue, the captain disabled the Flight Augmentation Computer, mid-flight. This was specifically warned against in the Airbus manual.

The autopilot was disabled. The co-pilot was flying the plane while the pilot attempted to fix the technical issue. The pilot told him to “pull down” on his controls. This was confusing as typically to make the plane go down, you push on the cockpit controls. The co-pilot pulled on his controls which caused the plane to climb to 38,000 feet. The plane stalled in mid-air and the breakdown in communication meant that the pilot and the co-pilot were moving their controls in conflicting directions to correct the stall. All 162 passengers were killed when the plane crashed into the Java Sea.

The crash called training practices for budget Asian airline carriers into question. Many pilots employed by budget airlines qualify from private flying schools. These accept candidates with lower grades than the elite public flying schools. The urgent demand for pilots have led to a slip in training standards.

Indonesian low-cost carriers offer their pilots half the hours in cockpit simulator than other large airlines. These cockpit simulators are essential for training pilots how to handle a dangerous situation at high altitudes. In the case of flight 8501, given more hours in a simulator, it is possible that the co-pilot would have been better informed of how to correct the plane once the engine stalled at high altitude.

Even in the recent case of the flight from Perth which was forced to turn around, the fact that the pilot told the passengers to pray, suggests he was completely out of his depth. Pilots with extensive simulator training are far calmer in emergency situations. They will have confronted similar situations many times in a simulated setting.

Pilots who fail tests in Australia are finding employment at low-cost carriers in Southeast Asia. One candidate at the Airbus simulator in Australia was deemed “too uncoordinated to fly”. He later received his pilot license from an Indonesian regulator.

The Regulators in the region are corrupt and ineffective

The implementation of regulation in the region is ineffective. Planes with faulty parts remain in the skies. The regulators are not monitoring them closely enough.

In Indonesia, the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) was established to monitor the aviation sector. However, in 2014 Indonesia failed a safety audit from the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). Their safety rating was the worst out of any country which handles more than 10 million passengers annually. They scored well below average in legislation, organisation, licensing, operations, airworthiness, accident investigation, air navigation services and aerodromes.

One of the explanations for the inefficiency of Indonesia’s avian regulator is that there have been accusations of corruption and bribery. A former Indonesian Airforce Chief suggested low wages paid to inspector pilots make them susceptible to corruption and bribery.

Indonesian and Malaysian airlines can learn from other airlines in the region

Thailand has announced a maintenance overhaul of its aircraft. More than US$5.7 billion will be spent upgrading aircraft and airport facilities by 2031. Singapore is also paying more attention to pilot training. An SIA-Airbus Pilot training facility will be constructed at Seletar Aerospace Park. The country already has four Aviation Schools, including a school of Aviation Safety and Security.

Singapore itself leads the region on airline safety and training. The country boasts globally certified aircraft maintenance facilities, training centres and research and development facilities.

Unless regulatory bodies clean up their act, the budget aviation industry in Southeast Asia will remain a ticking time bomb. The next big crash could happen at any time as faulty planes, poorly trained pilots and corrupt safety regulators put the public at risk. Consider flight D7237 a warning. Take measures now or face the grieving families of future victims with the knowledge that many accidental deaths could have been prevented.