AirAsia flight QZ8501: Pilots and Indonesian minister in war of words over weather briefing

An AirAsia jet pictured in Surabaya on Jan 3, 2015. Questions have emerged over Indonesia AirAsia's pre-flight standard operating procedures, amid a war of words between the transportation minister and pilots angry with his reported comments on alleg
An AirAsia jet pictured in Surabaya on Jan 3, 2015. Questions have emerged over Indonesia AirAsia's pre-flight standard operating procedures, amid a war of words between the transportation minister and pilots angry with his reported comments on alleged procedural violations prior to the disappearance of Flight QZ8501. -- PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

JAKARTA - Questions have emerged over Indonesia AirAsia's pre-flight standard operating procedures, amid a war of words between the transportation minister and pilots angry with his reported comments on alleged procedural violations prior to the disappeance of Flight QZ8501.

Indonesia AirAsia has said the pilot of flight QZ8501 "self-briefed" on weather conditions using reports downloaded from the meteorological bureau BKMG. The airline does not have flight operation officers (FOO) conducting mandatory briefings on weather conditions to pilots, unlike major carriers including Garuda Indonesia, Lion Air, Sriwijaya Airlines and Citilink, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Transportation Minister Ignatius Jonan chastised Indonesia AirAsia executives during his visit to the airline's office in Tangerang, Banten, last week. He reportedly spoke in a "high-pitch, angry tone" after an airline director suggested it was not necessary for a pilot to have a weather briefing by a FOO before take-off.

"When we have regulations, you must comply with them; don't attempt to violate them. I can revoke your licence," the minister was quoted as saying by news portal Kompas.com.

Some pilots, however, dismissed the claims. Mr Sardjono Jhony Tjitrokusumo, a senior pilot, described the reprimand as baseless, the Jakarta Globe reported.

"Don't make things up and say pilots are at fault if they don't undergo briefing. It is not part of the required procedures (before taking off)," Mr Sardjono said in a written statement sent to the Indonesian media.

He said pilots commonly read up on weather conditions but do not attend briefings.

"There is no such things as pilots being briefed before flight. Pilots of airlines around the world do self-briefings. They get printed weather information from systems used by their (respective) airlines; that information is provided before they fly," the Jakarta Globe quoted Mr Sardjono as saying.

"Can you imagine if all pilots from all flights must be briefed on weather conditions...? How many of them will have to stand in line for that?...Don't be ridiculous, especially for those who have no knowledge of aviation," he said.

He called on all parties to await results of the investigation into flight QZ8501 by the National Committee on Transportation Safety (KNKT) and to refrain from commenting unnecessarily.

In another open letter to the transportation minister, pilot Fadjar Nugroho said the BMKG had for some time now been allowing pilots to access weather information - which is constantly updated - on its website, and that the information is the same as that provided in a briefing.

"Since weather information for flights became available on the BMKG's website, many of my colleagues - fellow pilots and FOOs - no longer need to come to the briefing office. Don't admonish us because we get weather information from the Internet,'' he said.

Aviation expert Ruth Hanna Simatupang told the Jakarta Post that mandatory briefing to pilots by FOOs is a standard operating procedure.

"Nothing's new about the policy. It is a standard that has been applied regularly in the world. It is just one of the problems in the jungle of our aviation system. There are a lot of problems that need to be fixed in our aviation system.

"What Jonan (transportation minister) did is just a reminder to apply the already existing policy that is not being implemented," said Ms Hanna, who was a former investigator with KNKT.

She said the briefing will take no more than 20 minutes and the FOOs would give all necessary documents such as weather reports for pilots to study.

"After that, pilots will make their flight plan then submit it to FOOs for second thoughts or suggestions. Later, the FOOs will submit the discussed flight plan to the appointed air traffic control," she said.

She added that the transportation ministry must deploy more inspectors to ensure that the policy would be implemented seriously by airlines in the field.

Indonesia's transport ministry has now made FOO briefings mandatory before take-off.

"(The briefing is) not only about weather. The FOO should also detect if a pilot is not in good health," said Mr Djoko Murjatmodjo, acting director-general of aviation in the ministry.

The absence of FOO briefings to pilots is not the only problem found in Indonesia AirAsia. The airline is facing increased scrutiny after the transport ministry said flight QZ8501 was on an unauthorised schedule.

The airline was permitted to fly the Surabaya-Singapore route only on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, but flight QZ8501 took off on a Sunday.

The transport ministry had ordered airport and airline authorities to take action against those who gave approval for the unauthorised flight.

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