Who Will Get AsiaAir 8501’s Black Boxes?

The airline is based in Malaysia but as MH370 showed, the country can’t be trusted to investigate air crashes.

Antara Photo Agency/Reuters

The fate of AirAsia Flight 8501 and the 162 souls on board is a tragedy, but it will not remain a mystery for much longer.

The wreckage of the Airbus A320 has been located in relatively shallow water. The recovery of bodies is a first priority. As this gets under way the retrieval of the airplane’s flight data and cockpit voice recorders should be rapid because of the accessibility of the crash site.

This immediately raises the issue of who will lead the crash investigation. The airline is based in Malaysia. However the crash occurred in Indonesian airspace and 156 of the passengers were from Indonesia.

When foreign-owned airlines crash in U.S. airspace the investigation is led by the National Transportation Safety Board. For example, when an Egypt Air Boeing 767 plunged into the Atlantic en route from New York to Cairo in 1999, the NTSB investigated that case (the Egyptians did not accept the Board’s findings, that the pilot put the airplane into a dive in an act of suicide).

Another strong reason that the investigation should be led by the Indonesians is that their equivalent of the NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Committee has a very professional reputation and track record.

Moreover, Malaysian air crash investigators did not come out well from the first months of the investigation into the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. Their first and only published report was perfunctory and evasive and their work has been superseded by experts sent from many other nations.

The black boxes from Flight 8501 will most likely be sent to Canberra in Australia where the Australian Transport Safety Bureau has a laboratory equipped to do the analysis of data. The ATSB has been impressive in the way it has taken over the direction of the search for Flight 370.

The quality of Indonesian investigators was demonstrated by their report on the crash of a Boeing 737 on final approach to Bali International Airport in April 2013. The airplane was owned by an Indonesian budget carrier, Lion Air. It pancaked into the water just short of the runway. All 101 passengers survived but four were seriously injured.

The NTSC was scathing in its final report on the crash. They castigated the captain, a 48-year-old Indonesian, and his rookie copilot, a 24-year-old Indian. They were flying a virtually new airplane with state-of-the-art flight controls yet because of confusion over who was in command failed to see that they were approaching too low.

The report made 13 recommendations aimed to correct lax pilot training and other failures in Indonesia’s oversight of air traffic control and other procedures.

This points to a paradox: the gulf between the reputation of Indonesia’s crash investigators and the performance of the nation’s airlines. More than 60 Indonesian carriers appear on the European Union’s blacklist of airlines not allowed into European air space.

Many of these are small operations that would never, in any case, fly beyond Indonesia. But their record shows that travelers to Indonesia need to be very wary of any flight connections they make. Because of Indonesia’s topography, a 3,000-mile archipelago with challenging topography, it never developed either road or rail infrastructure to ease domestic travel. Thus it attracted a wave of cowboy operators to fly passengers and cargo between cities. There was virtually no government oversight of safety and operational standards.

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But it is not only small airlines that reflect the laxity of the system. Lion Air, for one, remains on the blacklist. Garuda, the country’s national airline with many international routes in Asia, was also banned by the European Union between 2007 and 2009. It went through a rigorous restructuring to meet international standards of maintenance and pilot skills – not enforced by Indonesia but by the EU. Since being cleared to fly in Europe the airline has expanded its fleet from 62 to 112 airplanes, reflecting the enormous demand for air travel in the region – a growth that exposes a demand for skills in pilots and maintenance engineers that outstrips supply.

There has never been any suggestion that AirAsia, despite its rapid growth and domination of the budget carrier market in the region, has shown the same laxity and corner-cutting that has been endemic to the Indonesian carriers. The airline’s CEO, Tony Fernandes, has copied the model of long-established western carriers like Southwest Airlines in the U.S. and EasyJet and Ryanair in Europe, all of whom have exemplary safety records.

In addition to the urgency that will be given to retrieving the AirAsia jet’s black boxes, two other invaluable forensic investigations can become active: medical examination of bodies, which can swiftly reveal significant details about injuries suffered as a result of the dynamics of the crash, and a first visual picture of the wreckage, which can include telltale information about the way the airplane broke up and, therefore, what stresses proved fatal to it.