Ongoing inquiries by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau make it clear that Garuda remained capable of being a menace to air safety in this country until at least 17 December last year.

That was when one of its 737-400s approaching Darwin failed to comply with an air traffic control clearance to descend to 3000 feet and dropped to 2000 feet instead.

The control tower then spotted the jet when it was about 700 feet above the ground some distance north of the runway and ordered a go-around be flown, apparently because of concerns it might crash before reaching the airport.

This is one of two alarming displays of incompetent flying by the Indonesian carrier that are under ATSB investigation as Marwoto Komar, the Garuda captain that crashed a 737 at Yogyakarta on 7 March 2007 prepares to appeal a two year sentence for criminal negligence handed down in a Jakarta court yesterday.

That crash killed 21 people, including five Australians, and was a factor in the EU banning all Indonesian airlines from its airspace indefinitely.

The other incident, first reported in Crikey, occurred at Perth Airport on 9 May last year when another Garuda 737 first abandoned an attempt to land on a runway which was closed for repair.

That crew circled back, ignored a control tower call to abort their landing and then flew low over the construction workers and their equipment to land in the remaining section of the closed runway.

It was spoken of at the time as one of the most gratuitously stupid and dangerous things any airline had ever done at Perth Airport in living memory.

Crikey understands that the notification of the runway’s unavailability was conveyed in the normal manner to the airline for operations planning purposes, and also transmitted to the pilots as a message prior to their approaching Perth.

While the ATSB continues its investigations the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) today said its enhanced audits and monitoring of Garuda in the aftermath of the Yogyakarta crash has not identified “any significant safety issues that warrant a change to Garuda’s operations in Australia.”

The CASA spokesperson said this morning:

After the EU placed a ban on Indonesian airlines the Civil Aviation Safety Authority reviewed all the safety data held on Garuda, including the results of CASA safety checks. This meant CASA had solid first hand knowledge of the safety performance of the airline.

In addition, CASA had even greater knowledge of the performance of the Indonesian air safety system due to the commencement of the Indonesian Transport SafetyAssistance Package.

With this data and knowledge, as well as increased safety checks of Garuda, it was determined the airline could continue to operate into Australia.

The difference between the positions of the ATSB, which must investigate safety incidents, and CASA reflects the policy response of the previous government to the crash, which were continued and strengthened by the Rudd government.

These involved avoiding strong criticism of the airline in favour of supporting a show trial of the captain of the jet, and a sensible $24 million assistance package to work ‘with’ the Indonesian authorities in improving their safety oversight.

CASA is bringing up to 40 Indonesian air safety inspectors a year to Australia in a co-operative training program.

However, the realpolitik of the situation is that unlike the EU, Australia is in no position to ban Indonesian carriers without inevitable retaliation that would close its airspace to Qantas flights to Singapore, Bangkok or Hong Kong.

This would cause some major detours, especially to Singapore, because this would require not just flying west of the republic, but to the north of Sumatra into Malaysian airspace before turning southwards to fly only an approach to Changi that wouldn’t transit Indonesian territorial boundaries that come very close to that city.

In practical terms, this was simply not on.

The injustice in the show trial of the Garuda pilot was that it didn’t put the senior management of the airline in the dock to answer charges of failing to maintain the required training and checking procedures or to comply fully with aviation safety requirements, even so far as using a runway that had been officially declared to be unlicensed for passenger operations.

See Crikey Blog Plane Talking with Ben Sandilands.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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