QZ8501 — Will lessons be learnt?

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FROM the murky floor of the Java Sea, a doomed AirAsia plane is sending important signals that, if taken seriously, will make air travel safer.

But the hopes of that happening are dim, like the clouded early morning skies that confronted flight QZ8501 on Dec 28. Already, air transport associations are trying to wish away this disaster — along with the two that befell Malaysia Airlines last year — with statistics showing a good track record for safety in the skies.

Instead of investigating possible contributory causes such as overcrowded skies, incompetent airport administration, the pressures on pilots and budget airlines’ tendency to cut corners, an intriguing blame game is being played in Indonesia with information being leaked and accusations made that AirAsia did not pay due diligence to airport rules.

A Singapore-based pilot with more than 10 years’ experience told The Edge Review: “I find the reports that the airline didn’t have the clearance to fly on that doomed date and that the pilot did not have the weather report very strange.

“We should not jump to conclusions and start pinning blame; let us wait for the recordings of the black box before throwing stones.”

The voracious appetite for air travel in the Asia-Pacific has seen many jump on the bandwagon to start budget airlines. Industry analyst Frost and Sullivan estimates that total passenger throughput from Asean nations alone grew from 211 million in 2011 to 233 million last year, a compound annual growth rate of 3.3%.

In anticipation of further demand, aircraft are being ordered by the thousands. Boeing estimates that Southeast Asian airlines will acquire 2,750 new planes over the next 20 years.

Amid this frenzied pace of expansion, who has time to take a breather and think through what their actions will do to the safety of the passengers?

In the case of the AirAsia crash, it is clear that the pilot had a problem getting permission to fly higher because there were at least six other planes above.

Navigation operator AirNav Indonesia has said a request by the AirAsia pilot to fly from 32,000ft to 38,000ft could not be approved immediately because of other aircraft in the vicinity. Three minutes later, AirNav was ready to give approval but the plane had already lost contact.

The Singapore pilot is convinced that a catastrophic malfunction took place. “There is no other explanation for the steep descent into the sea,” he said.

“I have flown the Surabaya-Singapore route many times and I can tell you one has to be at his nimblest best to avoid a crash mainly because of the overcrowding and the tricky weather conditions.”

The Indonesian government’s decision to suspend seven airport officials is a telltale sign of an airport administration in a mess. A scandalous attack on AirAsia for not having the permission to fly on the day of the crash got many asking: if so, why was it allowed to take to the skies on that day?

Said Endy Bayuni of The Jakarta Post: “By doing that they are drawing attention to themselves because the the airline could not have flown if there was no permission in the first place. It gets messier and messier.”

Adding to the confusion were Changi International Airport officials in Singapore saying that the budget airline had the clearance to fly into the airport on that date.

Low-cost airlines operate on a no-frills business model that cuts costs to the bare bones. Fast turnarounds are important because every minute’s delay adds to the cost of operation. To drive home the point to his staff, AirAsia chief executive officer Tan Sri Tony Fernandes is famous for rolling up his sleeves and helping out on the ground, assisting at the check-in counter or helping to clear luggage.

With such a tight grip on expenses, cutting corners is a common practice in the industry. For example, flight QZ8501 got its weather report only after it was in the air.

“It is not an uncommon practice among pilots,” said the pilot who spoke to The Edge Review. “As long as there are no major variations in climate, having a weather report is not essential. What is important is how the pilot reacts if there is a weather emergency.”

That brings up the question of whether pilots are well-enough trained to tackle emergencies. Aviation lawyer James Healy-Pratt told British newspaper The Daily Telegraph that the explosion of air travel has not only heightened demand for pilots — and thus a tendency to rush their training — but also an over-reliance by pilots on automation in modern aircraft cockpits. That was established as an important factor in the Air France crash in 2009, he said.

Now another 162 lives have been lost with no indication that some of the biggest lessons in modern aviation have been learnt.


This article first appeared in this week’s edition of The Edge Review at http://www.theedgereview.com


This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on January 13, 2015.