Indonesian airlines booming, but are they safe?

Lion Air is Indonesia's biggest domestic carrier, but the airline is still on the European Union's banned list over safety concerns.
Lion Air is Indonesia's biggest domestic carrier, but the airline is still on the European Union's banned list over safety concerns. Photo: AFP

Sometime last year, the number of people flying domestically around Indonesia officially passed the number of people flying around Australia.

And, while the Australian air travel market was moribund because of local economic conditions, Indonesia’s was flying, growing at around 15 per cent a year – 60 million domestic passenger trips in 2011, compared with Australia’s 54 million. The growth in international travel to and from Indonesia was even greater.

Thousands of Australians are among those taking to the skies in Indonesia (more than 900,000 according to the latest figures), either on business or as holidaymakers exploring Bali and beyond on the archipelago.

Yet, even though there are signs that the carnage of recent decades has begun to slow, it is still an extremely dangerous place to fly compared with Australia.

The government of Indonesia unwittingly contributed to the death toll in 2001 when it removed many of the bureaucratic hurdles in the way of new airlines as it encouraged economic growth to lift the island nation out of poverty.

“It’s possible we concentrated more on developing the market (in 2001) and were not so focused on safety concerns,”  Hemi Pamuraharjo, the deputy director for scheduled flight services at the Indonesia Ministry of Transportation, told the New York Times last week.

Nevertheless, domestic air travel is expected to double within five years, which worries industry analysts. If improvements in aviation and airports infrastructure don’t keep pace with demand, “this growth ... will come to a halt,”  aviation analyst Shukor Yusof, of Standard & Poor, in Singapore, told the Times.

The biggest airport in the country, Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, was built to handle 22 million passengers. Last year, it served more than 50 million, and it is the fastest-growing airport in the world, according to the Airports Council International.

Almost incredibly, Indonesia’s largest domestic airline, low-cost carrier Lion Air, which harbours ambitions to fly to Australia, is still on the European Union’s list of banned carriers, which are forbidden from using EU airspace.

But Lion Air has all of its attention taken up just meeting internal demand. Lion was the launch customer for Boeing’s biggest 737, the 200-seat -900 model, of which it is now the world’s biggest operator with 68 in the fleet and another 334 to come from the factory over the next few years.

Lion has about 40 per cent of the domestic market, while national carrier Garuda, which is more focused on international flying, has about 20 per cent.

Indonesia AirAsia, the local subsidiary of the Malaysian low-cost giant, is set to become the country’s No.3 domestic carrier, following its decision last month to buy local carrier Batavia Airlines.

Indonesia AirAsia, Batavia, Garuda* and Mandala Airlines – recently taken over by Singapore’s Tiger Airways – are among the handful of local carriers that have been taken off the EU banned list because of their compliance with EU safety standards after passing searching international audits.

All are rapidly expanding to take advantage of a middle class that has grown rapidly in the last eight years, to 130 million from 80 million.

The World Bank estimates that, in the next 20 years, the Indonesian middle class with enough disposable income to buy air travel will grow from 130 million people to more than 240 million.

And, despite the creaking infrastructure – the system is so decrepit that local music radio stations still reportedly interfere with air traffic control frequencies – there will be more than a sprinkling of Australians among them.

*Garuda was voted the world’s best regional airline in last month’s world airline awards.

Have you used the Indonesian airline system? Have you flown with Garuda to Bali or Jakarta or onwards to Asia or Europe? Have you flown internally on other airlines? What was your experience like? Do you do business in Indonesia or have you used local carriers to explore regions like Sumatra and Sulawesi?

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