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Annoying Airport Delays Might Prevent You From Becoming the Next AirAsia 8501

No one died on U.S. commercial flights last year largely thanks to those three-hour ground stops that prevent pilots from flying into dangerous storms. Indonesia is a different story.

Next time you find yourself fuming over a three-hour ground hold at the airport, and the consequent snowball of flight delays and cancellations, get over it: you should be grateful for the fact that this is part of an aviation safety regime that works. That ground hold was to stop you flying through weather that could kill you and everyone else aboard.

These days weather should never cause a commercial airliner to crash. That’s why increased scrutiny is being given to what brought down AirAsia Flight 8501 over the Java Sea. The pilots of the Airbus A320 flew into a powerful storm. Were they really aware of how dangerous it was?

The accident rate in Asia has marred what was in 2014 a banner year for aviation safety. The estimated number of flights worldwide was 33 million. There were only 21 fatal crashes, the fewest ever. But because the fatal crashes included several involving large wide-body airliners, the total number of deaths, 990, pulled down the ranking in fatalities to the worst for 24 years. The disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 and the loss of AirAsia 8501, both in Asian airspace, gives the region an unhappy prominence.

Meanwhile, the management of U. S. airspace is exemplary. There were no deaths on scheduled commercial aviation flights in 2014, in a system that operates 68,000 flights a day.

The AirAsia crash raises urgent questions about the management of Indonesian airspace. Specifically, what briefing did the flight crew receive before they went to the airplane? Did the airline file a flight plan that took account of the weather en route from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore? (The storm band across the route had not developed when the airplane departed but forecasting should have been able to predict it.)Who had the dispatching authority at the airport?

Officials on duty at Surabaya in the early hours of that Sunday morning have been “relieved of their duties,” according to Indonesian authorities. That apparently includes some members of the management of the airport itself and some air traffic controllers.

There is the smell here of an indecent rush for scapegoats, even before we know what really caused this crash. And this stench reached a truly bizarre level when the Indonesian aviation authorities announced that AirAsia was not supposed to be operating on that route on Sundays. They said that because of the pressure of peak season traffic the airline’s schedule on that route had been cut back to four days a week from seven, and Sunday wasn’t one of those days.

Aviation experts across the world experienced severe jaw dropping at this news. An airplane doesn’t just appear at a gate, fill with passengers and then call the tower asking for clearance to fly. All the slots for arrivals and departures are allocated months in advance. Indeed, the authorities in Singapore who control the gates there said that as far as they were concerned AirAsia had a slot for that Sunday flight.

AirAsia has now been grounded on this route by the Indonesians. An expert on the Asian commercial aviation industry told me that he suspects animus and commercial rivalry are behind the “unauthorized schedule” charge. AirAsia Indonesia, which operated Flight 8501, is the Indonesian subsidiary of AirAsia, which is based in Malaysia. Carriers like this operating in other regional nations have to register subsidiaries in those countries in order to comply with local certification and practices.

Malaysian-based entrepreneur Tony Fernandes has turned AirAsia into the most successful low cost airline in southeast Asia. In doing so he exposed the failure of other airlines in the region to see the huge pent-up demand for cheap travel. Two Indonesian airlines, Garuda and Lion Air, have seen Fernandes eat their lunch and are only now responding. Watching him now being accused of illegal operations will not see them shedding any tears.

Indeed, Lion Air, with 45 percent of the domestic Indonesian airline market, has swallowed the Fernandes formula whole. Like him, they identified the Airbus A320 as an airplane extremely well fitted to low cost airline operations in Asia. Last March they gave Airbus a huge piece of new business, ordering 169 A320s and 65 of the slightly larger A321. This deal was so important to Airbus that it was signed at the French presidential palace, with President Francois Hollande beaming and shaking hands with the CEOs of Airbus Lion Air.

Unspoken in such illustrious surroundings though is the fact that Lion Air was, and remains, on the European Union’s blacklist of airlines not permitted in European airspace because of concerns over safety.

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There is a larger reason, beyond the airlines themselves, why Lion Air and 61 other Indonesian airlines are on this black list. It is because the European Aviation Safety Agency, EASA, regards the oversight of commercial aviation in Indonesia as seriously deficient. (The other prominent Indonesian airline, Garuda, was on the list for three years but got off it by persuading EASA that – regardless of the lapses in the standards of the Indonesian Directorate of Civil Aviation – its own practices met the European standards.)

That may be so, but the shambolic and bewildering actions and pronouncements of the Directorate and Indonesian officials as they scramble to account for the way their airspace was managed when Flight 8501 went down has exposed just how far they still have to go to meet international standards.

This catastrophe has also shed light on what might well be a growing weakness as Asian airlines struggle to match their resources to an insatiable demand: the supply of experienced pilots. I have noticed that in two cases now, AirAsia 8501 and the crash in 2013 of a Lion Air Boeing 737 at Bali International Airport, there was a pairing of an experienced pilot with a far less experienced copilot.

The copilot on Flight 8501 was Remi Emmanuel Piesel, 46, who despite his age had just 2,275 hours of flying experience. He flew with Captain Irianto, 53, who had 20,000 hours experience, more than 6,000 hours on the A320.

In the Lion Air crash, when confusion over who had command of the airplane in the final minute of its approach led do it ditching in the sea, just short of the runway, there was a 48-year-old Indonesian captain with 15,000 hours of commercial flying experience, 7,000 of them on the Boeing 737, paired with a 24-year-old Indian copilot who had only 1,200 hours total experience and just 923 hours on the 737.

This matters. Copilots usually fly the airplane for most of the time. The captain is there both to retain final command and to closely observe the copilot’s performance. He becomes, de facto, a kind of permanent instructor as copilots increase their proficiency and demonstrate their consistency of ability. This system works a lot better when copilots build more hours on smaller airplanes before graduating to the responsibilities of airplanes carrying 150 or more passengers. The Lion Air captain had left his rookie copilot to make the landing until he realized he was in trouble. Until the black box from Flight 8501 is recovered and analyzed we won’t know if Captain Irianto found himself in the same situation.