JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The Transportation Ministry is conducting an investigation into the safety of low-cost carrier Lion Air following reports in recent weeks that its flights were experiencing problems midair.
Four separate cases of problems on Lion Air flights were reported in February, including the return of a flight to its airport of departure due to technical problems, an overrun incident and the finding of a scorpion inside a plane cabin.
"After we complete (assessing) all of the data, we will decide on further action or penalties to prevent incidents or accidents from taking place," Captain Avirianto, the ministry's director of aircraft worthiness and operation, told The Jakarta Post recently.
Lion Air spokesman Danang Mandala Prihantoro confirmed the investigation, saying the company was expecting to receive recommendations on improving its service quality.
"Lion Air obeys (regulations) and takes into account aspects of flight safety, security and comfort," he told the Post.
The most recent incident occurred on Lion Air flight JT-799, which was scheduled to fly from Domine Eduard Osok Airport in Sorong, West Papua, to Sam Ratulangi Airport in Manado, North Sulawesi, on Feb 21.
The JT-799 pilot made the decision to return to the Sorong airport minutes after takeoff after the pressurisation system signalled for oxygen masks to drop from the head compartments during the flight.
A video that went viral on social media showed JT-799 passengers wearing oxygen masks as the plane was returning to Sorong.
In the company's official statement, Mr Danang said a return-to-base (RTB) call to Sorong went smoothly and according to procedure. He denied widespread news that claimed the pilot was initially trying to complete an emergency water landing.
"The flight was normal and a controlled one. The plane must fly around the sea to adjust the height so that its position is ideal for landing," he said.
Over a week prior on Feb 12, Lion Air flight JT-780 to Palu, Central Sulawesi, returned to its base in Makassar, South Sulawesi, about 30 minutes after takeoff due to technical problems identified by the pilot.
Mr Muhammad Arief, a passenger of JT-780 flight and resident of Bangil in Pasuruan, East Java, told kompas.com that the aircraft encountered turbulence when it was above the Makassar Strait and said it felt like the plane had "lost power". The airline maintained that the plane was safe when it returned to Makassar.
Aviation expert Alvin Lie, who is also an Indonesian Ombudsman commissioner, said return-to-apron (RTA) and RTB actions were normal for incidents in which pilots wanted to ensure passenger safety, and that any aircraft might encounter technical problems, even for flights that passed pre-flight checks.
In an incident on Feb 16, flight JT-714 skidded off the runway at Supadio International Airport in Pontianak, West Kalimantan, during heavy rain after flying from Soekarno-Hatta International Airport. No casualties were reported.
In a separate incident involving a predatory arachnid, a passenger of Lion Air flight JT-293 found a scorpion in the cabin of a flight going to Soekarno-Hatta airport from Sultan Syarif Kasim II International Airport in Riau on Feb 15.
Mr Danang of Lion Air said the plane was properly examined to eliminate any possible pest threat and the airline ground staff found nothing.
The incidents come months after Lion Air's most fatal accident - the crash of flight JT-610 that killed 189 people in the Java Sea last October.
Indonesian Consumers Foundation (YLKI) chairman Tulus Abadi said the Transportation Ministry needed to be better at auditing Lion Air in terms of its operations and finances, as some customers were afraid of using the airline.
"We have yet to hear of any reports or penalties given to Lion Air related to the JT-610 accident," he said.
Mr Tulus said consumers were facing a dilemma when it came to choosing an airline. Despite its problems, Lion Air was still chosen by many as it held the biggest market share in the low-cost carrier category, he said.
However, Mr Lie said each incident was different from each other and, as such, must be assessed using different approaches.
"It must be looked into further, whether an incident is small or big and what the ratio is between the number of incidents and the total flights operated by the airline in a day," he told the Post.
"If repetitive problems are found, even if they might happen on different aircraft and flights, it may be an indication that there is an aircraft maintenance problem."