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[JAKARTA] The disappearance of an Indonesia AirAsia passenger jet comes at a sensitive time for Jakarta's aviation authorities, as they strive to improve the country's safety reputation to match its status as one of the airline industry's fastest growing markets.
The Airbus A320, with 162 people on board, is presumed to have crashed into the Java Sea on a flight from Indonesia's second city Surabaya to Singapore on Sunday, putting renewed scrutiny on the regulation of airlines in a country that remains on the European Union's aviation blacklist.
Malaysian-listed budget carrier AirAsia and its regional affiliates have up until now had a near blemish-free safety record, but officials were quick to announce on Monday a review of Indonesia AirAsia's operations. "We will review Indonesia AirAsia to make sure its performance can be better in the future," Transport Minister Ignasius Jonan told reporters. "Much will be reviewed in terms of its business operations and in terms of air transportation business, so that there are safety improvements."
Indonesia is on track to become one of the world's top 10 aviation markets by around 2020, and could be in the top five with 270 million passengers by 2034, according to projections by the International Air Transport Association.
The country's fast-growing airlines such as Lion Air, Garuda Indonesia and its subsidiary Citilink have been ordering hundreds of aircraft from Airbus and Boeing to meet this demand.
But, despite recent improvements, the air safety record of Southeast Asia's most populous nation remains patchy.
A spate of fatal accidents in the 2000s that culminated in the crash of an Adam Air Boeing 737-400 on Jan. 1 2007, killing all 102 passengers on board, led to a blanket ban on all Indonesian-based airlines from flying to the European Union.
Around the same time, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration barred Indonesian carriers from increasing flights to and from the United States, prompting the State Department to caution American citizens about using Indonesian carriers on regional or domestic routes in the country. "Indonesia has had a questionable safety record. This will once again raise questions about how safe Indonesian airlines are," said Greg Waldron, Asia Managing Editor at Flightglobal, an industry data and news service. "This is the first incident for Indonesia AirAsia, but it will cast a spotlight once again on the entire industry."
The European Commission began granting exemptions to the EU flight ban for some Indonesia airlines in 2009, including Garuda Indonesia, which subsequently began direct services to Europe, and Indonesia AirAsia.
But the ban remains in force for most of the countries airlines, including Lion Air, one of the world's fastest growing carriers. Lion Air co-founder Rusdi Kirana told Reuters recently that he expected the ban on his airline to be lifted next year.
Despite improvements, since 2010, there have been 13 serious incidents involving passenger aircraft in Indonesia, excluding the disappearance of the AirAsia jet. Eleven of those resulted in the plane being written off and four incidents involved fatalities.
An official from Indonesia's transport ministry told Reuters that the country expected to take the lead in any investigation into the fate of the AirAsia plane. "The aircraft was registered in Indonesia and it looks to be missing over Indonesian territory. So we will lead the investigation. We have the expertise to do this," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Jakarta-based National Transportation Safety Committee has a dedicated team of air crash investigators - many of whom are former airline or transport ministry officials - and has a reputation for being meticulous in its investigation of air incidents, according to aviation experts. "They have the expertise to investigate air crashes, ironically because of the large number of them," said Flightglobal's Waldron. "Their reputation is at stake and they will want to get this right."