Indonesia aviation in spotlight after Lion Air crash

As air travel grows in the region, the Lion Air crash raises concerns over the safety. (Adek Berry/AFP)
Updated 29 November 2018
0

Indonesia aviation in spotlight after Lion Air crash

  • Indonesia is one of the world’s fastest-growing aviation markets
  • All 189 people on board were killed as the nearly new Boeing 737 slammed into the sea shortly after takeoff

JAKARTA: Bumpy runways, hair-raising safety lapses, remote airstrips with no navigation systems and a dire shortage of experienced captains and maintenance crews.
Indonesia is one of the world’s fastest-growing aviation markets, but it has come under fresh scrutiny since a fatal Lion Air crash last month as the sector struggles to keep up with its breakneck expansion, putting safety at risk, analysts warn.
“The vast increase in demand and operations has seen more regular accidents or events taking place that are preventable,” said Stephen Wright, an aviation expert at the University of Leeds.
On Wednesday, investigators issued a preliminary report that said the doomed Lion Air jet had technical problems that the airline failed to fix before its final flight.
All 189 people on board were killed as the nearly new Boeing 737 slammed into the sea shortly after takeoff.
While officials did not lay blame or pinpoint a definitive cause of the October 29 accident, they said the budget carrier must take steps “to improve (its) safety culture.”
Despite a spotty safety record and an avalanche of complaints over shoddy service, the carrier’s parent Lion Air Group — which also operates five other airlines — has captured half the domestic market in less than 20 years of operation.
The group now has Southeast Asia’s biggest fleet — more than 300 planes — with growth driven by a model built on cheap prices and flights to almost every corner of the vast Indonesian archipelago.
Indonesia’s safety record has improved, analysts say, since its airlines including national carrier Garuda were banned for years from US and European airspace for safety violations.
Still, the country has recorded 40 fatal aviation accidents over the past 15 years.
The US and EU flight bans have been lifted in recent years, but the industry is still wrestling with outdated infrastructure, accusations of cutting corners and heavy restrictions on hiring pilots and technicians from overseas to plug staff gaps.
“If you want to grow quickly, you have to hire foreigners but here we have regulations which prevent us from easily hiring them,” said Jakarta-based aviation analyst Gerry Soejatman.
Lion Air — which captured headlines in 2011 with a then-record $22-billion order for Boeing planes — sits at the center of a $4-billion-plus sector with double-digit annual growth and 97 million domestic travelers last year alone.
The carrier’s chief, Edward Sirait, acknowledged that people may see Lion as a “tacky company” that hires “grumpy” service staff straight out of high school.
But he disputed any suggestion that pilots — including those that fly on international routes — are not properly trained.
“They’d never be able to fly abroad if they weren’t qualified,” he told AFP.
Indonesia’s transport ministry said it is pushing Lion and other airlines for safety and service improvements.
Some Indonesian lawmakers, however, want the budget carrier’s license to be revoked, a call that may be bolstered by Wednesday’s report.
Such punishment is unlikely given the size of the Lion Air Group, a major employer that has ballooned as Indonesia’s growing economy and rising incomes have given more of its 260 million people access to air travel.
Its co-founder Rusdi Kirana — who described his own airline as the “worst in the world” in a 2015 interview — is a close confidante of President Joko Widodo, who appointed him to the key post of Indonesia’s ambassador to neighboring Malaysia.
And the firm’s growth strategy is crucial to Widodo’s infrastructure push, which includes plans for dozens of new airports including a $10-billion hub in the capital, as he seeks re-election next year.
Lion Air is also the only carrier to service many remote parts of a 17,000-island country, where some of the more than 200 airports don’t even have proper navigation equipment.
That means pilots have been forced to use their sight alone while landing over perilous terrain and on less-than-smooth runways.
“There are still many runways with uneven surfaces so when the plane lands its feels like you’re driving on a potholed road,” said Lion Air captain Yusni Maryan.
As a frequent flyer, Indonesian civil servant Amalia Pissano has her share of horror stories, from the Lion Air captain who delayed a flight for two hours so he could have a meal to a terrifying experience aboard a Sriwijaya Air flight on the same route as the crashed Lion jet.
The plane suddenly began shaking violently before it plunged toward the ground, sparking chaos inside the cabin until pilots regained control and landed safely, she said.
The crew never offered an explanation, Pissano said.
“It was really scary because the plane was rocking and the crew seemed to have no clue what was happening.”


How Zahran Hashim went from obscure extremist preacher to the alleged mastermind of the Sri Lanka bombings

Updated 29 min 49 sec ago
0

How Zahran Hashim went from obscure extremist preacher to the alleged mastermind of the Sri Lanka bombings

  • He split from the National Thowheed Jamaath and formed his own faction, which experts say was the ‘main player’ in the attacks
  • Using social media, he spread pro-Daesh propaganda under the banner Al-Ghuraba Media

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan: Until last Sunday, the only thing Zahran Hashim was known for was being a member of a local Sri Lankan group accused of defacing Buddhist statues.

Now, the obscure radical preacher is believed to be Daesh’s point person in Sri Lanka and the “mastermind” of the coordinated Easter Sunday attacks that have left 359 dead and more than 500 injured.

A video released by Daesh on Tuesday shows seven black-clad, masked men pledging allegiance to the organization, and an eighth man, whose face is visible, leading them. That man is Hashim. Security officials in Sri Lanka claim to have “credible information” that he was planning another attack targeting Muslim shrines that followed the mystical stream of Sufi Islam.

Sri Lanka has no history of Islamist extremism. The Sri Lankan government first named a local militant group, National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), as the main suspect behind the attacks. It is one of the few Islamist radical groups operating in the country and was thus seen as the main contender for involvement with Daesh. Hashim is known to have been a member of the group until at least 2016 when security officials say he left and formed his own faction because the core group disapproved of his increasingly hard-line views.

Hashim was driven out of his hometown Kattankudy in eastern Sri Lanka by townspeople and moderate clerics because of his divisive teachings. Media reports say he received his early schooling in Kattankudy and then traveled to India to start a seven-year course on Islamic theology. He dropped out midway. Since then, he has reportedly traveled frequently between India and Sri Lanka.

Shunned by his hometown and the NTJ, Hashim found a small, but loyal, band of supporters online. Over the past two years, he gained thousands of followers for his impassioned sermons against non-Muslims on YouTube and a Sri Lankan Facebook account, which he called Al-Ghuraba Media and used to spread pro-Daesh propaganda.

According to Robert Postings, a researcher whose work focuses on Daesh, Hashim had been a supporter of the group at least since 2017, when he began posting pro-Daesh propaganda on Facebook. In many of Hashim’s videos, the backdrop is images of the burning Twin Towers after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the US.

Last year, Hashim appeared on intelligence officials’ radar after several of his students defaced three Buddhist statues in central Sri Lanka. The subsequent investigation led officers to a large weapons cache, including 100 kg of explosives and detonators, on the northwestern coast of Sri Lanka.

Experts say Daesh has been recruiting for years in Sri Lanka and other Asian countries. On the ground, the group seems to have received help from Hashim after he created the Al-Ghuraba group. “That is the Islamic State (Daesh) branch in Sri Lanka,” said Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based expert on militancy in the region.

Experts with knowledge of the investigations said Hashim’s faction of the NTJ was the “main player” in the Easter attacks and that he worked with international support, given the sophistication of the bombings and the fact that foreigners were targeted.

“Most Sri Lankans have not heard about this (National Thowheed Jamath) group before,” said Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. “There is someone behind them, a handler.”

Caption

As of Thursday, Daesh had not provided any further proof for its claim of responsibility for the attacks, and Sri Lanka’s Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardene said investigators were trying to determine if it had directly provided training or financing to the bombers. There was no evidence to suggest the bombers had traveled to the Middle East to fight for Daesh, he said..

“There were many people who understandably doubt that the attacks were a purely domestic operation,” said Taylor Dibbert, a Sri Lanka expert and fellow at the Pacific Forum.

“The investigation surrounding intelligence failures and the bombings should be done with significant international assistance. The Sri Lankan government cannot be trusted with this type of thing on its own,” he said.

 

TIMELINE OF SRI LANKA BLASTS

 

April 11 

Sri Lanka’s police chief issues an intelligence alert, warning that suicide bombers from a group called National Thowheed Jamath plan to hit “prominent churches.”

April 21

8.45 a.m. Four bombs explode on Easter Sunday at the Shangri-La and Kingsbury hotels, and
St. Anthony’s church in Colombo; and St. Sebastian’s church in Negombo, north of the capital.

8.50 a.m. Explosion at Colombo’s Cinnamon Grand Hotel.

9.05 a.m. Blast hits the Zion Roman Catholic church in Batticaloa on Sri Lanka’s
east coast.

1.45 p.m. Explosion at the New Tropical Inn, Dehiwala.

2.15 p.m. Three police officers are killed in an explosion while raiding a house in Colombo.

8 p.m. Curfew begins in the capital; police say they have made their first arrests.

April 22

4 a.m. Evening curfew is lifted amid tight security. Police find 87 detonators at Colombo’s main bus stand.

8 p.m. Another night curfew begins.

April 23

Midnight State of emergency comes into effect.

Daesh releases a video that shows eight men, all but one with their faces covered, standing under the terror group’s flag and declaring their loyalty to its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. The man with his face uncovered is identified as Moulvi Zahran Hashim, a preacher known for his militant views.

April 24

Bomb squads carry out controlled explosions of suspicious packages; US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says there is “every indication” the bomb attacks were inspired by Daesh.

April 25

Sri Lanka’s Catholic churches suspend all public services over security fears.