Indonesia Investigates How Two Pilots Dozed Off During a Flight


Indonesia’s aviation authority said it would review how the country’s airlines operate night flights after both pilots on a Batik Air flight carrying 153 passengers fell asleep, causing the plane to briefly veer off course.

The flight — a journey of about three hours from Kendari to Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, early on Jan. 25 — was a return leg for the crew and plane, which had spent less than an hour on the ground after arriving from Jakarta.

The plane took off from Kendari around 8 a.m., and after reaching cruising altitude, the captain took a nap while the co-pilot manned the flight, according to a preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Committee. After about an hour, the co-pilot accidentally fell asleep, and several frantic calls from the air traffic control center and other aircraft went unanswered.

About 28 minutes later, the pilot woke up, realized the plane had veered off course and woke up the co-pilot. They course corrected, and the plane landed safely in Jakarta.

Batik Air is owned by Lion Air Group, Indonesia’s largest air travel company, which has a troubled safety record. In 2018, one of its flights fell out of the sky moments after takeoff, killing all 189 people on board. In 2013, a Lion Air flight crashed into the sea while trying to land; all passengers were safely evacuated. And in 2004, 25 people were killed in a Lion Air crash in Surakarta, Indonesia.

In recent years, Lion Air Group has made significant investments into improving the safety of its flights, said Gerry Soejatman, an Indonesian aviation expert and consultant, but he added that it was unclear whether the investments were addressing the underlying issues or making quick fixes.

“Because they have a questionable history,” he said, “what we worry about is that they are overly desperate to fix it.”

Indonesia’s aviation industry has “had a bit of a troubled history,” said Keith Tonkin, the managing director of Aviation Projects, an aviation consulting company in Brisbane, Australia. Indonesia’s airlines were banned from flying in the United States and the European Union for years after a string of crashes by Indonesian carriers in 2007. The bans were lifted in the United States in 2016 and the European Union in 2018.

The preliminary report for the Batik Air episode found that the 28-year-old co-pilot, who was not named, had not slept well the night before the flight because he had twin 1-month-olds and “had to wake up several times to help his wife take care of the babies.”

While preparing for the first leg of the round trip, he told the 32-year-old captain that he did not sleep properly and, at the captain’s offer, had a 30-minute nap on the flight from Jakarta to Kendari, the report said.

The report found that while Batik Air instructs its pilots about impairments to watch out for before a flight, including stress and fatigue, it does not provide detailed guidance about how pilots can assess these impairments. “The absence of detailed guidance and procedure might have made pilots unable to assess their physical and mental condition properly,” the report said.

It also found that while Batik Air specifies that the plane’s cockpit should be checked every 30 minutes during a flight, it does not specify who is responsible for the checks and how they should be done. Cockpit checks are usually conducted by flight attendants.

On Saturday, Indonesia’s director general of civil aviation at the Ministry of Transport, Maria Kristi Endah Murni, said that the ministry would investigate the Batik Air episode and review how all of the country’s airlines manage crew fatigue when operating night flights.

Batik Air said in a statement that both pilots involved in the flight had been temporarily suspended.

The issue of crew fatigue for airlines around the world has been exacerbated by a pilot shortage caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Tonkin said. With many airline staff laid off during the pandemic yet to return to the industry, “there’s systematic pressure on everyone in the industry to perform at a really high level with constraints,” he said.

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