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Aviation: Indonesia's leading low-cost airline loses new Boeing 737

Bryan Edwards

News is breaking as we write of the loss of flight JT610, a Boeing 737 Max 8, the Seattle company's latest variant of its most popular aircraft. The aircraft operated by Lion Air, which has one of the newest fleets of aircraft in the industry, left Jakarta a short while ago and disappeared over the sea en route to Pangkal Pinang in the Bangka Belitung Islands.

Jakarta Airport is the base for Lion Air, a high-quality, low cost airline that grew out of the ashes of the disastrous state of the Indonesian airline industry a decade ago. At that time, airlines were crashing almost as often as aircraft. Indonesian airlines were refused permission to fly into the airspace of many nations. The EU issued a region-wide ban.

Lion Group is one of the least customer-focussed airline groups when it comes to convenience with no on-line or city check in meaning that travellers must be at airports perhaps three hours before a flight if they want to reserve specific seats or make sure groups can sit together. However, its ground staff are universally excellent, its aircraft are clean and comfortable and on-board service is slick and smiling. It does have a problem with delays which makes the lack of on-line check in even more irritating. But, as one of the new wave of airlines, along with the national carrier Garuda, its new fleet and hugely improved maintenance has propelled Indonesian airlines to a level of quality and safety that a decade ago would have been unthinkable.

Lion's own website says that its fleet is mainly Airbus A330-300s but on the tarmac at Jakarta last month, there were ranks of Boeing 737 MAXs, all looking very shiny. They are about half the capacity of the A330s and the missing aircraft, PK-LQP, was delivered only in August.

The Indonesian authorities have said that, some 13 minutes into the flight expected to last one hour, the pilot had requested a turn-back to Soekarno-Hatta (Airport code: CGK).

A BBC Report initially quoted an aviation consultant, Gerry Soejatman, as saying that the specific aircraft model had "had been experiencing problems since it was introduced, including difficulties maintaining a level flight." However, admittedly quick, research by ChiefOfficers.Net has failed to turn up any publicly available official reports to support that claim which we therefore consider unsubstantiated. While we were fact-checking, the BBC removed that comment from its reporting. Other, less careful outlets continue to republish the claim without caveat. We did find criticisms of fuel efficiency claims but we found nothing relating to the "level flight" comment.

Tracking data via FlightRader24.com is at https://www.flightradar24.com/... . It shows that the aircraft did not, in fact, commence a turn-back. It shows that the north-east bound trip's flight path took it, first, south-east, then a turn to the east of Jakarta, over South Jakarta and then past the airport and over the sea. As a result wreckage has determined that it hit the water only some two nautical miles offshore. The aircraft is thought to be under water at a depth of only some 40 to 60 metres and it was located very quickly after disappearing.

Malindo Air, oddly referred to as an Independent full service airline, is owned by Lion. It is based in Malaysia and recently took delivery of the first of its new fleet of B737 Max 8 aircraft. The bulk of its fleet is B737s. In Indonesia, Lion owns Batik Air, a full service airline. According to Planespotters.net, Batik has 55 aircraft, mostly Airbus, with 14 B737s, a mix of Max 8 and Max 9.

Indonesian airlines have had a hugely improved safety record in the past few years. Lion, as one of the few survivors of the previous era, has had one or two problems, including an aircraft that landed in the water alongside the runway at Bali in 2013, plus some long-ago disciplinary problems with crew but there has been an extraordinary turnaround in quality and service.

The last major incident involving an Indonesian airliner was PK-AXC, an Airbus 320 operated by AirAsia Indonesia, which crashed into the Java sea on 28 December 2014. The flight from Surabaya to Singapore had a technical problem that was exacerbated by bad weather and pilot error, official reports found.

At this early stage of the investigation, there is no confirmed information relating to the cause of the crash of JT610 today.

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