Treating air accident as crimes

Lalu A. Damanhuri, Jakarta

Within a one-month period at the end of this year there have been a number of serious accidents in Indonesia in almost all forms of transport.

While it is too early to make judgments about the exact cause of the Lion Air Boeing MD-82 aircraft crash in Surabaya, it is quite possible the accident

 was due to the failure of Lion Air to comply with standard operating procedures. A likely contributing factor to the accident could also be the failure of employees to exercise adequate operational safety oversight.

Historically, a variety of people, including surviving pilots and cabin crew, mechanics, ground workers, and surviving passengers, have willingly provided key information in accident investigations. The overriding emphasis of investigators is on understanding the accident so that lessons learned could be used in preventing future accidents. In the past there was little concern with trying to punish those who might have contributed to the accident.

However, this not the situation now and more people are becoming reluctant to talk openly. It is also increasingly common for people to talk to their lawyers before talking to investigators. Although it is difficult to determine the specific effect of this litigious environment on the quality of investigations, it seems clear that accident investigators are being told less and are finding it difficult to gather information in a timely fashion.

Actually, according to Aviation Law No. 15/1999, there is no way a pilot in Indonesia can be charged with causing an air accident. The current law says no one is directly responsible for an aviation accident, and therefore the pilot or copilot cannot be charged for criminal recklessness or negligence as drivers on land can.

The government, however, has established the Transportation Safety National Committee (KNKT), the body that conducts investigations into aviation accidents. However, this body is not independent, because it is under the auspices of the Ministry of Transport. To ensure an unbiased investigation, the existing law must be reformed in order to accommodate air transport safety -- if necessary we should set up a separate aviation accident law.

Automatically recorded information is becoming ever-more critical in determining the causes of increasingly complex accidents. Flight data recorders (FDRs) in newly manufactured aircraft must now record 57 different measurements and soon will have to record 88.

Automation has already taken over many of the functions previously performed by pilots, air traffic controllers, and mechanics. For example, after takeoff, the pilot can program the plane to fly itself. Some aircraft are even equipped with an automatic landing function. However, in highly automated aircraft, pilots no longer have a direct mechanical or hydraulic link to control aircraft components. Instead they provide input into a computer that issues commands to the components.

In some aircraft, the computer can even alter pilot inputs to prevent action that has been programmed as unsafe. How can we be sure that this increasingly complex programming will work as desired under the huge array of circumstances that aircraft potentially face?

A key practical issue is ensuring that the pilot will be ready to resume control of an aircraft when needed. Take, for example, the problem of ice accumulation during flight. Even small amounts of ice can dramatically degrade an aircraft's performance, and with sufficient icing the aircraft can become un-flyable. Because the autopilot can compensate for the accumulating ice up to a point, the pilot may not realize that there is a problem. But by the time the pilot resumes control from the autopilot, the plane may have deteriorated to the point where it is no longer controllable.

Determining the point at which adding more automation becomes counterproductive to improving safety is a complex issue, and we don't pretend to know where that point is. Our concern is that the industry may not always realize that just because we have the technical ability to automate something doesn't

 mean we always should.

The airline industry has always been strongly affected by business cycles. During periods of rapid growth, budget carriers' increased demand for pilots means that pilots often move more quickly up the career ladder. There is always the concern that they do so with insufficient experience and with less filtering. Less experienced pilots are often hastily promoted to higher position. Although there is no solid proof to back up the statement, but from day to day we have seen a higher rate of pilot errors in the last few years during the period of rapid growth of this industry.

Until recently, the question of how the government safety function should be organized haven't been given much thought.

A second element involved in organizing governmental institutions for safety is harmonizing international safety regulations. A persistent theme in aviation safety research is the disparity of safety performance in different regions of the world. Indonesia is dramatically less safe. The reasons are varied, including differences in navigational and landing aids, airports and weather. But there are also differences in regulatory standards and enforcements in areas such as pilot training, mandatory equipment on aircraft, and aircraft maintenance.

These differences are aggravated by the tendency in Indonesia for airlines to lease (buy) older aircraft from developed countries. Although older aircraft can be operated safely when properly maintained, adequate maintenance is frequently lacking in Indonesia.

There have been relatively few attempts at harmonizing international standards and enforcement on airline operations, aircraft maintenance, pilot training and licensing, and minimum required equipment on aircraft. Accident investigation is also more difficult in Indonesia, because FDRs and cockpit voice recorders are often less sophisticated.

The traditional approach of learning from previous accidents alone is no longer enough. Stricter penalties from the government, including to charge and bring to court those who are responsible for the air accident should be taken soon.

The writer is a senior specialist from the Committee On Policy for Acceleration of Infrastructure Development (KKPPI).  from this link

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