BANGKOK — A passenger jet carrying more than 60 people crashed into the Java Sea on Saturday, minutes after taking off from the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, Indonesian officials said, bringing renewed attention to a nation long troubled by aviation disasters.
The fate of the plane, a Boeing 737-524, also carried the potential to ensnare the troubled American aviation giant in more bad publicity, even though the cause of the crash had not been determined.
Indonesia’s Transportation Ministry said that the last contact with the plane, Sriwijaya Air Flight 182, was made at 2:40 p.m. local time. The plane, bound for the city of Pontianak on the island of Borneo, had 62 people on board, according to the Transportation Ministry. Four minutes after taking off amid a heavy monsoon season rain, following a weather delay, the 26-year-old plane lost more than 10,000 feet in altitude in less than 60 seconds, according to Flightradar24 flight-tracking service.
The Indonesian National Search and Rescue Agency said it had found pieces of debris in waters just northwest of Jakarta that it believed may be from the plane’s wreckage, but that darkness and inclement weather had impeded its search. The area where the debris was found is known as the Thousand Islands.
“Tomorrow we are going to survey the location,” Soerjanto Tjahjono, head of Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee, said Saturday evening, dimming hopes that survivors would be found.
Boeing acknowledged Saturday’s crash, saying on Twitter: “Our thoughts are with the crew, passengers, and their families. We are in contact with our airline customers and stand ready to support them during this difficult time.” CFM International, which manufactured the plane’s engines, said in a statement that it was providing technical assistance to Indonesian authorities and to Sriwijaya Air.
The aviation sector in Indonesia, a developing country of thousands of inhabited islands, has been plagued by crashes and safety lapses for years. As Indonesian airlines, particularly low-cost carriers, have grown rapidly to cover a vast archipelago, the domestic aviation industry has been undermined by shoddy aircraft maintenance and cavalier adherence to safety standards.
For years, top Indonesian carriers were banned from flying to the United States and Europe by those countries’ regulators. Budget airlines would start up business only to declare bankruptcy after deadly crashes.
But Sriwijaya Air, which began operations in 2003 and is Indonesia’s third-largest carrier, had never had a fatal crash. And the Sriwijaya Air plane that disappeared from radar screens on Saturday was from Boeing’s 737 500 series, which is considered a workhorse model with years of safe flying.
The crash comes at a time when Boeing’s reputation and bottom line have been hurt by a pair of crashes aboard its 737 MAX plane two years ago.
In 2018, Lion Air Flight 610 plunged into the Java Sea with 189 people on board after the 737 MAX jetliner’s anti-stall system malfunctioned. Another 737 MAX crashed in Ethiopia in March 2019 after a similar erroneous activation of the anti-stall system.
In all, 346 people died in those crashes, which led to the grounding of the MAX fleet worldwide, triggered criminal probes, brought intense scrutiny from governments around the world and led to the ouster of Boeing’s CEO. In November, the Federal Aviation Administration became the first major aviation authority to lift its ban on the plane, after requiring software updates, rewiring and pilot retraining. At the end of December, American Airlines became the first U.S. carrier to resume scheduled flights aboard the 737 MAX.
Boeing estimated last year that the grounding would cost it more than $18 billion. But that was before the coronavirus pandemic brought travel to a standstill, throwing the airline industry into disarray. In 2020, Boeing lost more than 1,000 aircraft orders, mostly for the MAX, though more than 4,000 remain. Its stock price has fallen about a third from where it was two years ago.
On Thursday, the company said it would pay more than $2.5 billion in a settlement with the Justice Department related to the anti-stall software used in the 737 MAX. That includes $500 million set aside for the families of those killed in the crashes and $1.77 billion in compensation paid to its customers. In a statement announcing the agreement, a senior Justice Department official said Boeing’s employees chose “the path of profit over candor by concealing material information from the FAA.”
Whistleblowers have also accused Indonesia’s transportation officials of ignoring danger signs as domestic carriers, including Lion Air, expanded rapidly to cater to a growing middle class in a nation of 270 million people.
Lion Air Group, which owns Indonesia’s largest carrier, signed what were then the two largest aviation deals in history, one with Boeing and another with Airbus. With its 737 MAX model, Boeing had targeted carriers in the developing world, like Lion Air, which were eager to pack their fleets with new jets designed for short, lucrative routes.
But aviation experts warned that selling planes to carriers that were growing quickly in unregulated environments could be a recipe for disaster.
Jefferson Irwin Jauwena, CEO of Sriwijaya Air, said on Saturday night that they “are very concerned about this incident.”
“We hope that your prayers will help the search process to run well and smoothly,” he added. “What we will also do is to provide the best possible assistance to families.”
Rapin Akbar, uncle of Rizki Wahyudi, a passenger on Flight 182, said his nephew called him on Saturday to tell him that the flight from Jakarta to Pontianak had been delayed. Rapin reminded his nephew, a national park employee, to keep his face mask on while at the airport to avoid contracting the coronavirus. Rizki’s wife, child, mother and cousin were also on the plane.
As he waited for search and rescue boats to report back, Rapin said he was holding out hope for his family members. “There will be a miracle from Allah,” he said.
Indonesian aviation analysts said the crash could imperil Sriwijaya Air’s viability, especially as the coronavirus has emptied Indonesian skies of many planes.
“Sriwijaya is trying hard to survive, and the pandemic is making it harder,” said Gerry Soejatman, an Indonesian aviation expert. “This crash may spell the end for it.”
Indonesian pilots have also complained that the coronavirus has decreased their opportunities to practice their skills and refresh their training. At one point during the pandemic, Sriwijaya was operating only five aircraft, Soejatman said, lowering crew morale.
At Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee, investigators prepared for the grimly familiar task of finding out what went wrong in the nation’s skies.
“Whenever we hear this kind of news, we get ready,” Ony Suryo Wibowo, an investigator for the committee, said Saturday. “We are gathering all the information we can get.”