The tragic disappearance Adam Air Flight KI-574 on January 1, 2007, has brought forth a torrent of vociferous and angry diatribes calling for the resignation the Government Minister responsible for transportation and a more stringent safety regulation of Indonesia's burgeoning air traffic industry.
The all-too-frequent reports of Indonesian aircraft crashes, runway mishaps and near-misses suggest that much still remains to be done to increase the professionalism of the national aviation sector. And while we have no quarrel with the growing chorus for safer airways and a more transparent approach to the investigation of all aviation "incidents," it seems that the disappearance of the Adam Air flight last week carrying 102 souls and an earlier incident, in February of 2006, when another Adam Air flight carry 145 people went temporarily missing suggest even bigger issues of national security may be in play.
In fairness to Adam Air's Senior Managers, the February 2006 missing flight in which an aircraft "disappeared" for nearly four hours, making an emergency landing in Sumba – some 800 miles off-course from its intended destination - was handled decisively. That incident resulted in the firing and arrest of the aircraft's Captain and the dismissal of the Company Director charged with aviation safety.
In the most recent incident, however, with the aircraft and its passengers still unaccounted for nearly one week after the reported disappearance, it would be both premature and unfair to try to assign blame and begin laying recriminations.
While Indonesia's Minister of Transportation, Hatta Rajasa, has had to bear the brunt of a storm of criticism over both incidents and the perceived generalized shortcomings of Indonesia's civil aviation industry, the two Adam Air incidents indicate that Indonesia's Minister of Defense Juwono Sudarsono and Armed Forces Commander Marshal Djoko Suyanto also have much to answer for.
Flight KI-574 Where are You?
Both Adam Air episodes point to the glaring fact that apparently no one on the ground in Indonesia has a firm handle on the location and status of the hundreds of civil, private and military flights crisscrossing the Country ever hour of the day.
Seen within the context of the post-911 world where aircraft in Europe and America that make minor deviations from their assigned flight paths and schedules can instantly precipitate a precautionary fighter-jet escort, the catch-as-catch-can style of monitoring Indonesia's skies is especially appalling.
In the case of the February 2006 Adam Air flight headed from Jakarta to Makassar, the aircraft loss radio contact and then flew undetected and unchallenged for nearly 4 hours over or near some of Indonesia's most populated cities, resort areas and largest hotels before landing unannounced on a remote airport with its fuel tanks on empty. In a different geographical context, this is the approximate equivalent of a London-destined flight landing in Rome or a Chicago-bound aircraft suddenly turning up in Atlanta, Georgia.
While the embarrassingly harsh criticism being laid at the door of Indonesia's Transportation Ministry may not be entirely undeserved and will hopefully result in safer air transportation for the flying public, President Yudhoyono also needs to also call onto the carpet his Defense Minister and the Air Force Officer now in charge of the the entire Armed Forces to be asked, both literally and figuratively, - "What's up?"
Unfortunately, if current developments are any indication, both men will find that a very hard question to answer.
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