189 People Feared Dead After a Plane Crash in Indonesia

A plane carrying 189 people from Jakarta to a smaller Indonesian city crashed into the Java Sea on Monday, prompting hard questions about the safety of the skies over a vast island nation dependent on air travel.

Lion Air Flight 610 had been flying north from the capital, Jakarta, to the city of Pangkal Pinang on the island of Bangka when it went missing minutes after takeoff, officials said. The National Search and Rescue Agency said that a tugboat crew saw the plane crash in Karawang Bay northeast of Jakarta and that skies were clear.

By Monday afternoon, no survivors had been found.

“I suspect all the passengers are dead,” said Marine Brig. Gen. Bambang Suryo, director of operations for the search and rescue agency.

Yohanes Sirait, a spokesman for the country’s air navigation authorities, said that the aircraft crew had requested permission to turn around minutes after takeoff.

“The request was permitted,” Mr. Sirait said. “Then we lost contact. It was very quick, maybe around one minute.”

The final contact with the plane was within 15 minutes of the flight taking off from Jakarta.

The crash is another setback for Indonesia’s fast-growing aviation sector, which has been troubled for years by safety problems but had recently shown signs of progress. In June, the European Union lifted a ban on Indonesian airlines that it had imposed in 2007, citing “unaddressed safety concerns.” (The state carrier, Garuda, and three other airlines were cleared in 2009.)

Indonesian officials said a search-and-rescue effort was underway for the Boeing 737 MAX 8, which departed Jakarta at 6:21 a.m. Monday. The aviation website Flight Tracker said the flight had been scheduled to arrive at 7:20 a.m. in Pangkal Pinang, on an island off Sumatra.

Officials said that rescue workers had arrived at the crash site, two nautical miles south of the aircraft’s last reported coordinates. The 178 passengers included two infants, one other child and at least 20 officials from the country’s Ministry of Finance, they said. An Indian pilot was among the seven crew members, and an Italian passenger was also onboard.

Agus Haryono, an operations official with Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency, told reporters on Monday that police and military rescue divers had found part of what they believed was the fuselage and were searching for more at a depth of around 130 feet, as well as on the water’s surface.

“We have found pieces of fuselage and passengers’ property, such as I.D. cards,” Mr. Agus said. “There is a lot of debris.”

Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman for Indonesia’s disaster relief agency, posted photographs on Twitter of material from the flight being recovered, including mobile phones and bags.
Danang Mandala Prihantoro, a Lion Air official, said in a statement that the aircraft was new and had been in service only since August.

“Lion Air is very concerned about this incident and will collaborate with relevant agencies and all parties,” Mr. Danang said, adding that the airline had set up hotlines for the relatives of passengers to call for information.

Edward Sirait, Lion Air’s president director, said the same plane had experienced an unspecified technical problem during a flight on Sunday from Bali to Jakarta but that the issue had been resolved “according to procedure.”

There was no immediate word on casualties as of early Monday afternoon, but Muhammad Syauqi, the chief of the National Search and Rescue Agency, told reporters that body parts had been found around the crash site.

The cause of the crash was not clear.

FlightRadar24, a flight tracking service, said that it had analyzed preliminary satellite navigation data from the flight that showed an “increase in speed” and “high rate of descent” from the plane’s last transmission.

The data released by FlightRadar24 showed Monday’s flight taking off and initially ascending to what would be a normal altitude. But within a couple of minutes, the plane suddenly plunged 500 feet and banked left in an unusual flight pattern. The plane then ascended and leveled off before what appears to have been a sharp descent into the Java Sea.

“The erratic flight path makes us suspect a problem with the pitot-static system,” said Gerry Soejatman, an Indonesian aviation expert, referring to the instruments used to record the flight’s airborne speed and altitude.

Mr. Soejatman said he had looked at the flight data from Sunday’s flight and noted a “similar erratic climb and groundspeed problem,” leading him to suspect a problem with the instruments had also been an issue then.

Several plane crashes have been blamed on blockages or other problems with pitot tubes, a probe on the outside of the aircraft, which resulted in erroneous speed or altitude readings, Mr. Soejatman said.

Soerjanto Thanjono, the chief of Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee, said at a news briefing on Monday that the weather had been sunny and clear.

After the plane took off, the wind speed was only five knots between the altitudes of 10,000 and 24,000 feet, said Dwikorita Karnawati, the head of the Indonesian Agency for Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics.

Boeing said in a statement that it was “deeply saddened” and stood ready to assist investigators. “We express our concern for those on board, and extend heartfelt sympathies to their families and loved ones,” it said.

Lion Air said in a statement on Monday that the captain of the flight, Capt. Bhavye Suneja, an Indian citizen, had more than 6,000 flying hours and that the co-pilot, who goes by the single name of Harvino, had more than 5,000 flying hours.
Air travel is an especially convenient way to move around Indonesia, an archipelago nation of more than 13,000 islands and the world’s fourth most populous.

Passenger traffic in the country tripled from 2005 to 2017, to nearly 97 million, according to the CAPA-Center for Aviation, a consultancy based in Australia. As of last year, Lion Air, a budget carrier, controlled 51 percent of the domestic market.

But along with that rapid growth, which has made Indonesia the world’s fifth largest domestic aviation market, the country’s airline industry has had a troubled safety record.

Notably, in 2014, AirAsia Flight 8501 crashed on the way to Singapore from the Indonesian city of Surabaya. All seven crew and 155 passengers were killed.

Plane Crash in Indonesia

Monday’s crash was the latest of at least 15 episodes involving Lion Air since it began operations in 2000.

In 2004, a Lion Air flight from Jakarta to Surabaya hydroplaned, overshot the runway and crashed into a cemetery as it stopped in the city of Surakarta, also known as Solo. The crash killed 25 people on board.

And in 2013, a Lion Air plane missed a runway and crashed into the ocean off the Indonesian resort island of Bali, forcing passengers to swim ashore.

That accident, in which no one died, came a month after the airline announced a $24 billion order for 234 Airbus planes, the largest such deal in Airbus’s history.

Four Lion Air pilots were arrested in separate incidents in 2011 and 2012 for the possession of drugs, including ecstasy and crystal methamphetamine.

On Monday, the Australian government ordered its officials and contractors to avoid Lion Air at least until the cause of the latest crash was established.

Nevertheless, the United States Federal Aviation Administration restored Indonesia to its Category 1 safety rating in 2016, nearly a decade after lowering it to Category 2. The latter category indicates that a country lacks either laws that allow it to comply with minimum international standards, or technical expertise, trained personnel or various other procedures.

The fact that Lion Air is a budget airline does not necessarily mean its safety record is compromised, airline experts said.

“To generally say that all low-cost carriers are inherently less safe than other carriers is not instinctively true,” said Hasan Soedjono, an Indonesian aviation analyst. “Some accidents have nothing to do with low-cost carriers.”

Source: BBC

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