Almost everyone who has lived in Indonesia has an airline story. A good one relates to a Garuda flight to Balikpapan. After the plane took off and leveled out the Captain came and started to meet and greet the business class passengers. He was swanning around like Captain Stubing of Love Boat fame. After five mins the co-pilot left the cockpit to find the captain, waiting patiently for an opportune moment to break in and ask his assistance.

After a few quick words they both turn around to go back to the cockpit to do whatever it was that needed to be done. To the dismay of the passengers the pilots realise that the door to the cockpit had closed, and could only be opened from the inside. Locked out of the cockpit, and in front of the now incredulous passengers, they had to use a fire ax to force the lock and re-take control of the plane.

Funny story, but sadly probably not an urban myth. Certainly believable and not the worst thing to have happened on an Indonesian airline. There will no doubt be lots of newspapers publishing air disaster statistics, but they will not cover the near misses and the shambolic state of the air industry as a whole. I wrote over a year ago a scathing riposte on QANTAS’s overtures to get into the Indonesian aviation industry. I’m sure now they are glad they stepped back.

Adam Air should have been grounded a year ago, except a part owner is speaker of the House of Representatives. Aside from a series of mishaps (mostly covered up) there was the seminal moment when their plane flying to Makassar landed in Sumbawa. Not unlike flying Sydney to Brisbane but ending up on Norfolk island. The pilots were unaware they had landed in the wrong place. No worries though – they took off without clearance and flew back up to their scheduled destination.

Adam Air has only been grounded in the last couple of weeks after another of their planes had a crash landing at the same airport as the Garuda disaster. Another recent Adam Air disaster (killing all 103 passengers) was blamed on the plane’s age. It has nothing to do with aging aircraft and everything to do with gross incompetence and corruption.

How bad is the corruption and incompetence in the airlines? Take a theoretical flight from Makassar to Jakarta. When you walk through security the metal detector does not detect anything. A flawed and corrupt procurement system has resulted in defective and un-maintained security equipment. Next, the X-ray of the bags would not be watched. Even if it was watched, the operator is not trained and does not know what to look for. That’s because he, and his colleagues bought their positions and are more interested in scams to make enough money to pay back the loan that got them the job.

When you go to the check in counter you can expect the operator will list you in the computer under a “T” code and not “P” code. This means you are listed as a Transit passenger and the airport tax you just paid at the desk can be pocketed as the system only reconciles tax collected against “P” (passenger) coded individual. Too bad if your plane crashes as there will not be an accurate manifest of passengers on board. This exact scenario happened with the Adam Air flight that crashed. It will be interesting to see if Garuda can produce an accurate manifest.

When you board the plane – keep an eye on the refueling. 18 months ago a local airline accused Pertamina employees of adulterating the fuel and selling the excess. The only problem was they were mixing it down with water. Literally watering down the fuel. This scam was discovered after the airline’s maintenance crew, when they opened the tanks, found they had to drain out an excess of condensed water. After complaining the airline was reprimanded for causing trouble and the whole fiasco was swept under the carpet.

As you go up the stairs of your plane, keep an eye on the uncertified maintenance engineers who can’t read the English language manuals.

Once flying take note: the hostesses are not properly trained. I have heard two different first-hand eyewitness accounts on two different crash landings on two different airlines where the hostesses panicked and jumped out of the plane themselves leaving the passengers behind to fend for themselves. There is a story (myth?) of a crash many years ago. The only fatality was a hostess who panicked whilst the plane was doing an emergency landing, popped the door and jumped for her life. She died while everyone else remained seated and survived.

Landing in Jakarta, if you come through the international section – you might see some individuals inside the secure area greeting passengers as they come off the plane. For a mere $30 you can access the secure area beyond the immigration desk without any security check. Even better, the $30 buys you the right to skip the normal queue of people and present your passport at the queue reserved for diplomats. You can pick up your bags and be ushered out the airport without presenting your luggage at customs.

Once outside you have a choice of dodgy taxis who have paid a kick back to have the monopoly rights of their taxis at the airport. They make up the cost by ripping off passengers. Alternatively if you are in a hurry, and you have some serious money you can pay for a police escort to ease your way through the congested traffic into town.

If you are unlucky and happened to be an Indonesian returning home from working as a domestic helper overseas, you get to go through an especially notorious terminal where officials prey on, extort and steal the hard currency earnings of these pitiful folk.