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Flying the unfriendly skies

Indonesia's airlines are the scourge of the world. Or are they? Europe partially lifts an embarrassing ban.

A plane belonging to Mandala Airlines takes off from Sukarno-Hatta airport on the outskirts of Jakarta, May 7, 2008. Mandala was one of the businesses formerly owned by Indonesia's military and subsequently sold to a private company. (Supri/Reuters)

JAKARTA — The reputation of Indonesia’s aviation industry, which has been growing exponentially since 1998, has quite literally crashed, time and again, over the last several years.

It began with the arrest of an off-duty pilot for the state-carrier Garuda who is now in jail for the poisoning of celebrated human rights activist, Munir Said Thalib, aboard a Garuda flight in 2004. Several years later the chief executive for Garuda was fired and then imprisoned for his role in the conspiracy.

Then, in January 2007, the popular budget airline Adam Air crashed into the sea, killing all 102 people on board. Several months later a 737 operated by Garuda and carrying 140 people overshot a runway in Central Java, killing 21. The pilot of that flight is now serving time for criminal negligence — the third Garuda employee now in jail.

In response to the string of disasters, the United Nations Civil Aviation Organization performed an audit that found a lack of oversight in the industry and severely lax safety standards. The European Union followed with a ban on all 51 Indonesian airlines preventing them from entering its airspace.

Indonesia’s transportation minister, Jusman Syafii Djamal, deemed it a wake-up call. The government moved quickly to overhaul the industry, addressing more than 120 safety and regulatory problems cited by the U.N. and EU.

The country grounded several airlines and permanently revoked the license of Adam Air, which at the time was one of the most popular domestic airlines.

Among the issues raised were a lack of regularly scheduled maintenance for aircraft, insufficient training for pilots and other crew, missing but required technology such as Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems, and an oversight body with little power to punish airlines that were breaking safety rules.

Indonesia has since outlined clearer safety codes, revamped its aviation regulator to give it more power, and established a safety oversight organization under the perview of the president.

And so, two years after the ban went into effect, the EU lifted it for Garuda and several other small airlines on Wednesday.

“It was long, difficult process,” Djamal said.