What a year-end, wasn’t it? After the solemn memorial for Asian tsunami Indonesia was hit by floods, mudslides, fire… and a tragic plane crash.
Many of us travel often or have loved ones who do that whenever a plane goes missing we jolt from our seats, scramble to check on our loved ones, then scouring news to know more.
Sadly this part of the world got to do that often lately. Malaysia Airlines MH370 was still at large while its MH17 remained scattered over Ukraine, then Air Asia QZ8501 en route to Singapore from Surabaya crashed on Karimata Strait. 162 souls onboard who I envisioned must’ve been in festive mood to celebrate New Year’s Eve as they boarded the ill-fated jet, before perishing less than an hour later in some cruel cosmic twist.
Air traveling has indeed grown substantially in Indonesia. Central Bureau Statistics and Ministry of Transportation websites show arrivals and departures of planes and passengers both gradually increased by 5% annually in 2005-2008, before both jumping to almost 15% annually in 2008-2013. The Ministry indicated that domestic passengers made up the majority while local airlines dominated domestic flights. 2014 numbers aren’t published yet, but it’s easy to surmise that arriving planes must’ve now passed the 800,000 mark and passengers beyond the 75 million ranges.
Don’t like stats? Just tour Indonesia’s prominent urban malls on weekends to find a fixture: luggage promotion galore. Business must’ve been so bountiful that a renowned brand once offered hefty discount on new four-wheeled, airport-friendly luggage in exchange for old suitcases. Indonesians have more money, so they travel more and farther. The country’s geography makes a splendid backdrop for water travel, yet its severely inadequate infrastructures and unreliable schedules, as anyone who’s ridden a ferry here can testify to, push now moneyed Indonesians to fly. Few were keen to sail seven hours from Ambon to Banda Naira aboard Pelni’s overcrowded old ship with me last year, but now that the tiny airport has reopened everyone hurries to book a seat.
What seats are mostly taken nationwide? Indonesians do have more money now yet pockets have only gotten deeper as much, so budget airlines, like local Lion Air or foreign Air Asia, are winning the bulk. These low-cost carriers (LCC) forego most of passenger conveniences for cheaper fares, and Indonesians didn’t seem to mind. Before going bust in 2008 Indonesia’s budget airline Adam Air had been the darling of new fliers.
Yes, Indonesian airlines suffered a series of accidents in those years, including Adam Air’s flight on New Year’s Day plunging into an abyss off Makassar, resulting in official verboten to European destinations. But has any technical or criminal investigation ever arrived at a solid conclusion that safety measures had been forsaken for lower ticket prices?
Indonesia’s ruling cabinet is new, yet a tragedy unraveled already under watchful eyes—global eyes charmed by the President and local eyes hopeful on rising star ministers. The new Minister of Transportation is such star, thanks to his well-documented success in turning around the rickety state-owned train company KAI in merely five years. A customer of KAI’s long-range routes, I’m not alone in applauding the visible improvements of facilities and services he accomplished. Now that hopes are pinned on him to reform the country’s entire transportation systems, I understand if everyone would be somewhat nervous.
Yet no amount of microscopic coverage or personal apprehension warrants for such a slapdash decision to increase ticket floor prices, thus hindering LCC to offer low fares or regular carriers to slash prices as promotional gimmicks. I’m no aviation expert, but my readings tell me aircrafts aren’t only built to specific orders– they’re also delivered with strict maintenance and inspection schedules to ensure air-worthiness. So rigorous these schedules that my simple logic tells me it’ll be prudent for pertaining costs to be capitalized upfront on balance sheet before amortized periodically through profit and loss report over the long years of the aircraft’s usage.
Can an LCC skimp on these maintenance-related provisions in order to reduce cost of goods sold that makes up the base price? Sure. But the ‘savings’ wouldn’t be as much as waiving costly services like in-flight meals and toiletries, extra baggage or airport lounges. And when regular carriers slash prices, I bet they’re already expensed within marketing budget. Not that I dared to assume the Minister needed to learn this from the li’l me anyway—after all he’d been an investment banker in a world-class institution who surely moves very comfortably around numbers.
Even if, somehow, airlines have forsaken safety for lower prices, what guarantees the ‘added’ revenue from higher ticket prices would finance safety and maintenance costs? Or the Ministry would get all draconian and manage airlines’ daily bookkeeping now? Whatever happens to airlines’ expected right for fair competition and customers’ divine right for choices? Shouldn’t instead the Ministry review and reform the national safety protocols, and learn to reinforce them better? What with ASEAN Open Skies to take effect fully at the end of the year?
Catch the mice without burning the barn, Indonesians say. Fly us or ferry us, Mr Minister. Just don’t forsake fairness for us.