After the Lion Air crash, Indian aviation is taking stock of its Boeing 737s

Mistakes were made.
Mistakes were made.
Image: Reuters/Thomas White
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The crash of the Indonesian low-cost carrier Lion Air’s aircraft on Oct. 29 has once again put the spotlight on global aviation safety.

The Boeing 737 Max 8 jet, one of the most advanced and newest planes manufactured by the US aircraft maker, plunged into the Java Sea shortly after take-off from Jakarta, killing 189 passengers. While no authority has pinned the blame on the aircraft model, the accident has sparked caution globally. This Boeing model has been in commercial use only since 2017, so the crash has baffled many aviation watchers.

Six Boeing 737 Max aircraft—five owned by Jet Airways, and one by SpiceJet—are in use in India. Besides, the two airline companies have also placed orders for over 200 more such aircraft. This will significantly increase the share of 737 Max’s in their fleet. Jet currently owns 124 aircraft, while SpiceJet has 61 aircraft.

“There are about 4,800-4,900 planes on order (globally) and only about 5% of it has been delivered. So whether it has safety hazards or not will only come to light with more and more usage,” said Ashish Nainan, research analyst for the aviation sector with CARE Ratings.

The crash in Indonesia prompted a review of the Boeing 737 Max by India’s civil aviation regulator, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) on Tuesday (Oct. 30). The DGCA said it hasn’t found ”any significant technical issue” yet.

In the meantime, Indonesian carriers’ poor air safety history is also on top of investigators’ minds.

“These Indonesian airlines don’t have a great maintenance track record. Most are low-cost carriers. They have very short turnaround time because they fly so often, so probably maintenance is an issue because of cost constraints. And it’s particular to Indonesia and Malaysia,” said Nainan.

In 2004, a Lion Air plane had crashed due to heavy rain and bad weather, killing 25 people. In December 2014, an AirAsia flight from Surabaya in Indonesia to Singapore plunged into the sea killing all, 162 on board. In March 2014, a Malaysia Airlines flight (MH370) disappeared while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in China. All 227 passengers and 12 crew aboard were presumed dead.

Given their track record, Indonesian airlines were barred from flying to the US in 2006 and to Europe in 2007. The bans were lifted only as recently as 2016.

However, India’s track record in airline safety is far from perfect.

An aviation-safety audit conducted in late 2017 by the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) gave it an air safety oversight score lower than that of Myanmar, Bangladesh, Maldives, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and even North Korea in the Asia-Pacific region. In fact, India’s score slipped from 66% in 2016 to 57% last year. The country had very low scores in accident investigation, airport standards, and air navigation services in the ICAO rankings.

ICAO is expected to reassess India’s aviation safety standards again on Nov. 12. The DGCA requested the agency to visit again, saying the country has made progress.