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Safety and budget flights
Lion Air Crash: Budget carrier’s rapid rise


   
GRIEF-STRICKEN: A weeping Nani Fitriani, the wife of the pilot who died in the crash, with his portrait at Jakarta airport on Wednesday. [Reuters]

Safety and budget flights

The Straits Times (Singapore), 3 December 2004

The budget airline frenzy in Asia has been all about crazily low fares and more destinations opening up. It is unlocking a new travel market and has forced mainstream airlines, even the aristocratic Singapore Airlines, to slum it with the herd by offering more promotions fares. This is all to the good.

Travel growth is projected so rosily there is no lack of entrants jumping into the fray – sometimes on a wing and prayer, it would seem. But a troubling omission has been that safety is hardly talked about by the trade or regulators. If travellers are apprehensive, they keep it to themselves. This has to change. The accident in Solo on Tuesday involving an MD-82 plane of the Indonesian budget airline Lion Air has forced the issue into the open.

Singapore operators Valuair and Tiger Airways quickly assured the public that safety was top priority. But this has been a fortuitous development, an indication of how neglectful the nascent business in Asia had been in not discussing safety matters openly from the start. It is a natural tendency for travelers to wonder whether the practices and aircraft maintenance of no-frills airlines are less meticulous than those of full-price carriers. This may be a mistaken impression. It is up to operators to convince travellers otherwise. It is in the commercial interest to do so, besides it being a responsibility they owe their customers.

AirAsia of Malaysia also had a Boeing 737 skid off a runway in Sabah, just like the Lion Air case. It had not fatalities, whereas 26 persons died when the Lion Air place broke apart. Investigations may establish neither accident was due to negligence. But operators would know a no-survivors crash would shake public confidence, perhaps fatally. They should reassure the travelling public, first of all, on the age and maintenance of their planes. New planes not maintained to required standards, and by competent engineers and technicians, can prove problematic.

Next, the pilots. Are they as competent and rigorously assessed as those of premium airlines? Do they fly more hours than are permitted? Do rookie pilots abound, as they are cheaper to hire? Airlines operate to tight turnaround times, more so the budgets. Would this place pilots under undue pressure, so as to cut operating costs? Regulators would seek satisfaction on all safety aspects before licences are given. Now they and operators need to share the information with the public.


   
   PICKING UP THE PIECES: Indonesian soldiers examining the wreckage of the McDonnell-Douglas MD-82 jet that skidded in Solo. [Reuters]

Lion Air Crash: Budget carrier’s rapid rise

The Straits Times (Singapore), 3 December 2004

SOLO (CENTRAL JAVA): LION Air is a success story in Indonesia's airline industry.

Five years ago, it started out with one Russian-made aircraft, operating its office from a humble shophouse in Chinatown. Its first flight took off in June 2000 from Jakarta to Pontianak.

Now it runs a fleet of 23 planes, mostly McDonald Douglas and Boeing aircraft, serving 40 domestic and overseas routes that include Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia. Next year, it plans to buy another 16 Boeing aircraft to expand its routes to 60. It also leased the dormant Halim Perdanakusuma airport in east Jakarta to fly to some of the country's smaller airports.

The man behind the company's success is 39-year-old little-known businessman Rusdi Kirana. He started out running a tour agency, but when the Indonesian government deregulated the airline industry in 1999, he was among the first to seize the opportunity to run an airline.

His company's rapid expansion prompted others to claim Lion Air was dumping cheap tickets and disrupting the competitive market.

Some claimed his political connections and ties with Transport Ministry officials was the key to his success in capturing domestic routes.

Observers were concerned the airline compromised safety to keep costs low. Tuesday's crash was not the first.

In January 2002, a Lion Air Boeing 737-200 skidded off the runway in Sultan Syarif Kasim III airport in Pekabaru after an aborted take-off, injuring seven people.

Mr Rusdi, who dismissed accusations by his critics, attributed his success to good managerial skills and having a strong team of employees.

In an interview with Gatra magazine last month, he said the company cut costs by building its own IT system instead of relying on foreign companies such as Abacus, as many in the industry do.

By doing this, he can lower ticket prices to enable ordinary people to buy flight tickets that in the past cost four times as much, he said.

Lion Air sells tickets that can go as low as a fourth of the prices offered by Indonesia's flagship carrier Garuda. It serves many of the routes to the outer islands.

The prices are so low they hurt businesses operating buses, ships and trains.

Mr Rusdi said in the Gatra interview: "Buses and ships are carrying cargo. People should not travel more than two to three hours at a time, not for two to three days. That is just not economical.

"Now that airline technology is more affordable, why not use it?" he said. –  DEVI ASMARANI




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