The creditable dispatch with which the flight data and voice recorders of the Indonesia AirAsia Flight QZ8501 were retrieved collaboratively, under difficult conditions, should spur the Indonesian authorities to come to grips with more formidable tasks ahead. Regulation of its aviation sector is clearly below par. The Transport Ministry needs to take more considered steps to fix this than measures like mandatory briefings for pilots from flight operation officers prior to departures, that it recently announced.
The country's shortcomings in aviation management had been flagged before by international observers. Unfortunately, it has taken a tragedy for Indonesia to realise that its safety issues are deep-seated and call for long-lasting remedies rather than just quick fixes.
It's easy to see how the situation got so bad. Fuelled by burgeoning demand, as Indonesians became wealthier, and facilitated by deregulation in the late 1990s, the aviation sector grew too big, too quickly. With passenger numbers growing at an annual rate of 20 per cent between 2000 and 2007, a new airline opened every few months. The growth of the industry outpaced the country's supply of aviation professionals, regulatory experts and management systems. Its airports are running above capacity with the result that things break down from time to time. Aircraft are sometimes insufficiently maintained and pilots inadequately trained. This unsatisfactory situation is compounded by corruption. There have been suggestions, for example, of officials allegedly taking bribes in exchange for more flight slots and landing priority.
All these affected safety, leading to a spate of accidents beginning in the 2000s that prompted the European Union to ban nearly all of Indonesia's 67 airlines from landing at its airports, and the United States doing so for all its airlines. With efforts to improve falling short of international expectations, Indonesia was rated below average in eight categories including legislation, operations and airworthiness by the United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organisation last May.
Indonesia's aviation sector is vital for an archipelago of 17,000 islands stretching across 5,000km. While its growth cannot be impeded, neither should safety be compromised, especially in the light of past and recent tragedies.
This is also a moment for other countries in the region to review their own gaps in air transportation safety. Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, for example, have not invested sufficiently in aviation infrastructure and professional development to prepare for the anticipated spurt in travel within the region. Regulatory infrastructure must be a vital part of overall development if Asean is to realise its vision of a single aviation market.