Could the co-pilot have really saved the Garuda 737 that crashed at Yogyakarta in March killed 21 people including five Australians? No.

Did yesterday’s release of the Indonesian investigation into the crash nail the real culprits, namely the airline and Jakarta’s total inability to administer aviation safety? No.

Is the media pursuit of the pilots a sideshow? Yes.

The official report vividly outlines the hellish situation in the cockpit. A captain persists with a recklessly fast and unstable descent toward a crummy airport amid repeated warning sirens, voice alerts from the “enunciator” to pull up, and desperate pleadings from his first officer to “go around.”

It has also deflected attention from the negligence of the national carrier Garuda through its failure to ensure and maintain professional pilot standards and the chronic, ingrained, seemingly immovable culture of corrupt, inadequate and inept public administration of air and, for that matter, sea transport in Indonesia.

In international law it is the airline that is totally responsible for everything that happens to a flight, and for the standards that ensure the safety of a flight with very, very few exceptions, none of which are relevant to this crash.

Had the co-pilot attempted to wrestle control of that jet, or any jet, from a captain intent on completing a manifestly unsafe approach, the result would almost certainly have been catastrophic and unsurvivable.

Does the reluctance of the safety investigators in Jakarta to release any material the police might use for a criminal prosecution of the pilots matter? Not at all.

Any resolution of compensation claims by the survivors or the relatives of the dead will be addressed though a settlement with any relevant insurers, or the airline, or in damages litigation.

The chances of a satisfactory litigation in Indonesia are slim to vanishing. Lower even than those of the Voyager victims in Australia, or the pursuit of state railway authorities for example by the victims of crashes in Victoria or NSW, where no one wastes any time pursuing the drivers, and focuses on those where ultimate responsibility and a capacity to pay actually exists.

Litigation against Garuda in the US rather than Australia might just offer some hope. Following the infamous Himalayan disaster in 1992 when an Airbus over flew Kathmandu and had an 800/kmh head on with a granite cliff, Thai International didn’t face up to its failings and responsibilities until it was dragged into the American courts.

Indonesian air transport will only become safer when its emerging middle class travellers use their political leverage to demand an end to the senseless slaughter that has accompanied the indifferent safety regulation of the rapid growth of its domestic air services.

Until then, the Australian Government has a clear duty of care to provide safe VIP fleet access to journalists accompanying ministers to events like the one that Alexander Downer was attending in Yogyakarta on the day of the crash, and business and leisure travellers need to consider carefully how and where they fly.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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