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When it's not all plane sailing

This article was published in my regular "mata jeli" column in the Singapore Straits Times on August 21, 2009.  The piece describes the Medan Band's trip from Medan to Palu (Central Sulawesi) via Jakarta in July 2009

TRAVELLING on Indonesia’s domestic airlines can be a real adventure. The experience of the members of a 30-strong Indonesian brass band whom I accompanied, together with their musical instruments, from Medan in North Sumatra to Palu in Central Sulawesi via Jakarta last month amply illustrates the point.

The saga is one of regulations ignored, restrictions imposed where none officially existed, shoddy handling of fragile items and the poor attitude of public relations staff. But there were also instances of good-hearted people doing their best to help out, even if at times it meant bending the rules.

The story begins at Medan’s Polonia airport, when an advance party of band members attempted to check in a bulky home-made wooden box containing an old tuba whose protective case was no longer available. They were stopped at the entrance by security guards operating the X-ray machine, who insisted that the box was too big and should instead be sent by a separate cargo flight. After some argument, the advance party removed the tuba from the box and was permitted to carry the instrument into the departure hall.

Surprisingly, the crew raised no objections to the presence of the tuba in the cabin of the aircraft on the flight to Jakarta. Too big to fit in the overhead compartment, the tuba was held throughout the journey by one of the band members. This was hardly in accordance with flight regulations, but at least the airline’s employees sympathised with the band member’s predicament.

Things were different when the tuba was carried on board a connecting flight to Palu operated by the same airline. The captain of the second aircraft objected strongly, railing against the ignorance of his colleagues when it came to airline regulations. But he too finally relented. Perhaps it was the look on the young man’s face. The prospect of having to dump a perfectly good tuba without the protection of a suitable case into the plane’s cargo hold seemed too much for anyone to bear.

Meanwhile, as the main party was preparing to leave Medan, inquiries were made with airline representatives regarding the acceptability of several boxes of similar size. Airline officials had no objection. “We are concerned about weight, not size,” they said. Subsequent checks with senior airport security officials elicited a similarly positive response. The official in charge of security, who turned out to be an amateur musician, even promised to facilitate the screening process. Thus it was that on the following day, bulky items previously deemed unacceptable by airport security guards breezed through the check-in process.

The return journey was uneventful by comparison. But when band members arrived in Medan and went to claim their baggage, they had a nasty surprise. Several instrument cases, including one that contained a brand new trombone, were badly damaged. Clearly, they had been subject to some very rough handling by ground staff despite the bright orange “fragile” stickers. One old tuba was so badly damaged that it was later deemed beyond repair.
This time around there were no understanding airline staff to make life easier. “That problem is not our responsibility,” barked one official when informed of the damage.

Indonesia’s domestic airlines do not have a good reputation. In 2007, responding to the country’s poor safety record, the European Commission (EC) imposed a blanket ban on all Indonesian airlines. That ban was partially lifted last month when four airlines – flag carrier Garuda Indonesia and Mandala Airlines, together with two charter companies, Airfast Indonesia and Premiair – were again permitted to enter EC airspace.

This story concerns one of the three domestic airlines – Lion Air, Batavia Air and Sriwijaya Air – currently listed in the top grade in the Transportation Ministry’s three-tier classification system, meaning that they qualify for an Aviation Operator Certification (AOC) issued by the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

According to Transportation Minister Jusman Syafii Djama, “after the AOC is given, the European Union is most likely to lift the ban for them as well”. But Indonesia’s airline industry needs to pay attention to other things besides safety.

Somewhat surprisingly for those who regard graft as at the root of just about all of Indonesia’s problems, at no point in the above chain of events did anyone hint that a problem could be solved with an under-the-counter payment. Instead, it was rather a case of kind-hearted people breaking rules in order to overcome problems created by others.

Regulations should not be broken, of course. But it is also true to say that low-level security officials should be trained not to make pronouncements on subjects that are beyond their area of expertise. Customer satisfaction would be increased enormously if passengers could board an aircraft confident that their fragile items would be treated with care, and that sympathetic airline officials were on hand to deal with any problems.

In the meantime, travelling on Indonesia’s domestic airlines is not something for the faint-hearted.

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