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Asia’s Airlines Are on Course for More Disasters
Cheap flights are pushing the limits of regulation .
On May 6, 1935, 11 passengers and two crew were on a Douglas DC-2 on Transcontinental & Western Air (TWA) Flight 6 on a flight leg from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Kansas City, Missouri. The brand-new plane never made it to the stopover; instead it flew into the ground on a foggy Missouri night. Five people were killed, including U.S. Sen. Bronson Cutting.
It was one of the most shocking accidents in the short history of American flight. The subsequent investigations found a tale of a mushrooming industry pushing the envelope of regulation and putting profit before safety —and created the basis of modern air safety. Today, the same pattern of risk and capital is playing out in Asia—but proper regulation may be a long way off.
After the 1935 crash, investigators from the Bureau of Air Commerce, the government agency then supervising air travel, found that the crew, the dispatchers, and TWA’s procedures were all at fault. The plane had been cleared for night flight despite lacking a functional radio to communicate with ground crew. In fog so dense that the plane shouldn’t have even been flying, the pilots failed to find the runway at Kansas City. As they flew low over fields, the plane clipped the ground and spun out of control.
The report was shocking—but blaming the airline wasn’t enough for senators, who were spurred by their colleague’s death to launch their own investigation into nationwide air safety and the bureau’s operations. The Senate’s Copeland Committee issued a report in 1936 which found, after looking at TWA Flight 6 and multiple other incidents over the preceding years, that safety procedures and regulation had failed to keep pace with huge increases in passenger, freight, and airmail carried.
Cozy relationships between industry and regulator, along with the desire to put increased services and lower fares ahead of safety, led to multiple preventable deaths. Congress moved air regulation away from the Department of Commerce and created a new, dedicated agency, the Civil Aeronautics Authority, with a mandate to put safety first. Although the regulatory regime continued to change over the following 20 years, the principle established was the basis for the founding of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 1958, which remains the U.S. aviation regulator today.
83 years later, on the other side of the world, 181 passengers and eight crew joined Lion Air Flight 610 in Jakarta, Indonesia, on October 29, 2018, for a short hop to Pangkalpinang on the island of Bangka.
The brand-new Boeing 737 Max 8, its pilots, and the company’s procedures should have benefited from the intervening decades of aviation safety findings, making another avoidable crash unthinkable. And yet, just 12 minutes after take-off, the crew lost control. The plane crashed into the Java Sea, killing everyone on board.
The Indonesian National Transportation Safety Committee’s preliminary report, released a month after the crash, gives us a good idea of the events from a technical perspective. A malfunctioning sensor led the plane’s autopilot to push the plane’s nose down, and the pilots’ lack of awareness of what was happening meant that—rather than disengaging the automated system, as on a similar flight operated by the same aircraft with a different crew the previous day—they couldn’t gain control of the plane before it hit the sea.
Global attention has fixed on Boeing as the culprit—and the U.S. giant bears a great deal of the blame. But the story of air expansion in Asia in recent years, typified by Lion Air, also worryingly mirrors the dangerous, unregulated growth of the past.
The aviation-system safety principles that stem from the Copeland Committee are based on learning from previous incidents. Aircraft must have multiple redundant safety systems, airlines must ensure safety systems are available and that their operating procedures are fail-safe, and pilots are trained in procedures that allow safe fallbacks from other system failures. And yet in Lion Air Flight 610, the aircraft design failed to provide redundancy, the airline failed to maintain critical systems, and the crew failed to follow recovery procedures.
The similar crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302—another 737 Max 8—on March 10 further increased suspicions about the aircraft type (the preliminary report had not been published at press time, so details are unclear). All 737 Maxes worldwide were grounded as of mid-March.
Boeing undoubtedly bears significant responsibility for the Lion Air crash. The automatic nose-down response was connected to a single sensor instead of multiple redundant sensors. Pilots were inadequately briefed by Boeing on how automated systems had changed on the 737 Max. The revelation that additional sensors which would have prevented the crash were sold as optional extras is even worse news for Boeing.
But in Lion Air Flight 610, the plane wasn’t the only thing at fault. The decision to operate the flight with a known sensor fault, the failure of the airline to pass on information from the previous day’s crew, the panicked crew response on October 29, and the cost cutting which led them to opt out of the optional warning systems, are all grounded in the airline’s history.
Aviation in Southeast Asian countries traditionally followed the expensive, inflexible national flag carrier model, but airlines like Lion Air and AirAsia in neighboring Malaysia have taken the market by storm over the past two decades. They have followed the model established by Southwest in the United States and Ryanair in Europe, running new fleets, minimal seniority, maximum flexibility, often (although not always) with a skeptical attitude to unions, and very low fares to meet and stimulate the need for travel among the region’s rapidly emerging middle class.
At the same time, as with low-cost carriers in the United States and Europe, they have attracted criticism from flight crew unions and independent safety groups over long hours and the willingness to sacrifice safety for cash savings—which is particularly concerning for many in a region where even flag carriers have had questionable safety records.
“There are so many bad stories about Lion, it’s hard to know where to start,” former Indonesian National Transportation Safety Committee investigator Ruth Simatupang told the New York Times in November.
Lion Air Flight 583 crashed in November 2004 by failing to stop at the end of the runway at Surakarta airport on landing in bad weather, killing 25 people including the captain. The investigation found that the braking system and the aircraft’s thrust reversers were both dangerously maintained.
The crash of Lion Air Flight 904 off the coast of Bali in April 2013 didn’t kill anyone, more by luck than good judgment. The plane—a brand-new Boeing 737-800, with no mechanical problems—landed in the sea, 1,000 feet short of the runway, as the crew failed to perform a go-around after losing sight of the runway in bad weather. Against all odds, the shallow, still waters allowed a relatively soft landing.
Overexpansion, cost cutting and underregulation underlie these incidents. Lion Air struggles to attract and retain enough qualified pilots and skilled ground crew, its staff work very long hours, and training times are significantly shorter than many other airlines. At the same time, Lion Air chairman Rusdi Kirana is politically connected. Despite being a non-Muslim of Chinese heritage—a tricky sell in Indonesian politics—he is deputy chairman of and a major donor to the Islamist-populist National Awakening Party (PKB).
The airline has used its connections to make cheap aviation available to Indonesia’s new middle class, whilst working at the absolute limits of aviation regulation compliance—and, many insiders say, using its influence against stricter regulation. The company has not made any on-the-record comments over these initiatives, but Kirana was an economic advisor to Indonesian President Joko Widodo and currently serves as Indonesian ambassador to Malaysia, so his substantial influence over government is clear. It’s all too reminiscent of the United States before Copeland.
“Buying all the latest-generation, state-of-the-art engineering will be in vain if you don’t have systems in place that prioritize safety,” former Lion Air safety manager Frank Caron told the New York Times in November, before the full extent of Boeing’s problems with the 737 Max became clear.
Lion Air starkly illustrates the benefits and costs associated with the expansion of budget aviation in emerging economies. Other carriers in the enormous Asian discount-aviation market are not immune from cost pressures, even where regulators are tougher and safety cultures are greater. The shortage of qualified flight deck and engineering crew puts pressure on the whole industry, even on budget operators with cash to spare such as Australia’s Jetstar.
Could there be a regulatory revolution for the region’s airlines, as the United States managed in the 1930s? It’s harder to pass regulation on a multinational scale, especially in a region where many neighbors remain in political conflict. The 737 Max scandal has made the traditional solution—the United States leading and driving global standards via the FAA —look much less credible than it did a year ago.
China has stepped in, perhaps opportunistically: It was the first country to ground the troubled Boeing model, and is keen to pursue a wider regional role. But other nations in the region will struggle to accept China’s leadership. Without a high-profile political casualty like Cutting’s death, the impulse to act may remain secondary to the drive for profit.