Rescue teams in Indonesia are gearing up for day two of their search for the missing Boeing Co. jet carrying 62 people that at least one agency has characterized as a crash after uncovering debris that are “strongly suspected” to be part of Sriwijaya Air Flight SJ182.
The plane lost radio contact shortly after taking off from Jakarta Saturday afternoon. The country’s search agency said the debris found in the Java Sea is similar to those circulating earlier on social media, and its efforts Sunday will include both air and sea, and also underwater. A local news organization said authorities received a report of a plane crashing on a nearby uninhabited island in an area north of the capital city.
The likely accident has once again pushed the nation’s aviation industry into crisis mode. The Southeast Asian nation has had a spate of plane crashes in the past decade, including the Lion Air Flight 610 disaster that killed 189 people in 2018, the first of the two 737 Max crashes before the global grounding. In December 2014, an AirAsia Group Bhd. plane plunged into the Java Sea with 162 people on board.
Weather has been a contributing factor in several of the past crashes. On Saturday, heavy rain in Jakarta delayed the takeoff for the 90-minute flight to Pontianak on the island of Borneo. About three minutes after lifting off, it leveled off at an altitude of about 10,000 to 11,000 feet for almost a minute before a rapid descent to the water in just 14 seconds, according to Flightradar24’s tracking data. That meant it was dropping at more than 40,000 feet per minute, a rate far above routine operations.
Without access yet to the plane’s black-box flight recorders, it’s impossible to say what may have triggered the sudden dive, said Jeffrey Guzzetti, the former head of accident investigations at the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. “Right now, given the amount of sparse information, that flight track could fit many scenarios, such as flight crew confusion, instrumentation problems, catastrophic mechanical failures or even an intentional act,” he said.
The plane Sriwijaya Air was flying is a 737-500 model that’s much older than the Max 737 aircraft.
“This is not even the model before the Max, it has been in service for 30 years so it’s unlikely to be a design fault,” Richard Aboulafia, aviation analyst at Teal Group Corp. said by phone. “Thousands of these planes have been built and production ended over 20 years ago, so something would have been discovered by now.”
The jet’s disappearance comes as the aviation industry is reeling from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which brought air travel to its knees. Covid-19 tore through in a tumultuous, unprecedented way — leaving carriers in a deep hole, along with a constellation of aerospace manufacturers, airports and leasing firms. The International Air Transport Association said last week that global passenger demand dropped significantly during November, down 70% versus the same period of 2019 when measured in revenue passenger kilometers.
“While we don’t know anything else about the cause of this crash, the biggest thing concerning me is serious concerns about Indonesian air safety standards that were identified by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency and others years ago,” Aboulafia said. “I am not completely certain that the proper procedures have been put in place.”
Indonesian authorities said they have sent several search vessels from Jakarta to the plane’s last known location in the Java Sea, believed to be only around 25 meters deep, and divers are preparing to search for the aircraft’s black box. First responders were also deployed to the site to aid potential survivors, local TV reported. Of the 62 people, 56 were passengers, including seven children and three infants, and there were two pilots and four cabin crew, local media reported. There were no foreign nationals onboard.
“We are aware of media reports from Jakarta, and are closely monitoring the situation,” Boeing spokeswoman Zoe Leong said in a statement. “We are working to gather more information.” Sriwijaya Air said it’s working to obtain more detailed information about the flight, and will release an official statement later.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has appointed a senior investigator to assist in the probe, but is awaiting more information before determining whether it will send a team, it said in an emailed statement. Under a United Nations treaty, the NTSB along with technical experts from Boeing and possibly the manufacturers of other components would participate in the probe because the jet was built in the U.S.
The 737-500 model first flew in 1989 and, according to tracking website Planespotters.net, this particular plane first flew in May 1994. The jet’s last contact was at 2:40 p.m., according to Budi Karya Sumadi, Indonesia’s transportation minister.
Debris, Oil Spill
Fishermen in the Thousand Islands regency found debris and an oil spill in the water, according to video shown by local news channel MetroTV. Footage also showed parts found that are suspected to come from the emergency slide, with words including “Boeing” and “737” written in a tag. The regent of Thousand Islands received a report of a plane crashing on Laki Island on Saturday afternoon, he said to local news website Detik.com.
Indonesia, which had one of the fastest growing airline industries in the world prior to Covid, has a patchy safety record when it comes to air accidents. Its poor aviation history saw carriers from the nation banned from the European Union in 2007 and it was only in June 2018 that the full ban was lifted. In 1997, Garuda Indonesia Flight 152 crashed approaching an airport in Medan in North Sumatra, killing 234. The AirAsia Flight 8501 that crashed in late 2014 was en route to Singapore from Surabaya.
On Oct. 29, 2018, the Boeing 737 Max flown by Lion Air plunged into the Java Sea 13 minutes after takeoff, killing all 189 passengers and crew. That was Indonesia’s second-deadliest aircraft accident behind Garuda Flight 152.
The coronavirus pandemic has complicated aviation insomuch as pilots aren’t getting enough opportunity to fly because airlines have grounded planes and scaled back operations due to a slump in demand. On Sept. 15, an Indonesian flight carrying 307 passengers and 11 crew to the northern city of Medan momentarily veered off the runway after landing, sparking an investigation by the country’s transport safety regulator. It found the pilot had flown less than three hours in the previous 90 days. The first officer hadn’t flown at all since Feb. 1.
Saturday’s incident also follows a tumultuous period for Boeing, which only in November had its 737 Max cleared to fly again by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, ending the longest grounding of a jetliner in U.S. history. Brazil’s Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes SA was the first airline to resume regular flights using the jet, beginning Dec. 9 on domestic routes from Sao Paulo. American Airlines Group Inc. has since also reintroduced the Max on Miami-New York flights.
Earlier this month, Boeing reached a $2.5 billion agreement with the Justice Department to settle a criminal charge that it defrauded the U.S. government by concealing information about the 737 Max, capping a two-year investigation that devastated Boeing’s reputation for engineering prowess.
Sriwijaya Air was established in November 2003. Its fleet is comprised of the Boeing 737 family of jets and ATR 72-600 turboprops. While the company primarily serves domestic routes, it does fly internationally to Penang, Malaysia and Dili, Timor Leste. Flag carrier PT Garuda Indonesia briefly took over the operation of Sriwijaya and its unit NAM Air back in 2018 to expedite Sriwijaya’s debt restructuring, including clearance of dues to Garuda’s unit.
The Boeing jet in question had been operated by Sriwijaya Air since 2012, according to fleet data on Planespotters.net, and was previously used by Continental Air Lines and United Airlines Holdings Inc.