Calls made for prosecution in light of Garuda Indonesia Flight 200 report

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Australia is calling for criminal charges to be made in light of the final report into the Garuda Indonesia Flight 200 disaster, which was published yesterday. Five Australians were among the 21 killed when the Boeing 737 jetliner overshot the runway at Adisucipto International Airport, near Yogyakarta, Indonesia on March 7 this year.

Ilustration of a typical go-around procedure. Note that the actual incident differs because the aircraft had bounced off the runway prior to the call for a go-around.

Australian Minister for Foreign affairs, Alexander Downer, said that the "very credible report" made it clear the two-man cockpit crew were responsible for the accident. The report found that alarms sounded no less than 15 times to warn the pilot in command that he was flying at an excessive speed for proper operation of the flaps, and that the co-pilot had also been ignored when he asked for a go-around to be made. The co-pilot was criticised for not taking control of the aircraft. The pilot was found to have ignored 15 emergency activations of the Ground Proximity Warning System telling him to slow down. Other criticisms were leveled at the inadequate training provided by the airline, the inadequate inspections by authorities, the lack of a mandatory runoff area at the runway and improper fire suppressants and slow response from the Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting facilities at the airport.

"I've asked our ambassador today to make it absolutely clear to the Indonesians that we want people prosecuted for this accident," said Downer. "I want to see people who have negligently allowed Australians … to be killed, I want to see those people brought to justice," he added. He has also expressed a pledge to discuss plans for a class action suit with survivors and relatives of victims, but he commented that "you're dealing with the Indonesian system here, it's a different system from our own, so it's not necessarily going to be very easy." Bill Madden from the law firm Slater and Gordon, who have a speciality in class actions, disagreed: "It would seem as though the families and people injured would have a fairly strong case," he said. "You'd be holding an airline responsible for the negligence of a pilot and that's a fairly standard approach that the law can follow."

Meanwhile, the Sydney Morning Herarld spoke with Ari Sapari, head of operations at Garuda Indonesia. He told reporters that the pilots, who remain grounded after the crash, may be sacked next week, when any disciplinary action is expected to be announced. However, if they are charged over the crash, he has promised the airline will assist in their defence, saying "They are still our employees, up to now. They have the right to be assisted." Police say they are examining closely the possibility of charging both with manslaughter, which could see them sent to prison for up to five years if convicted. When queried about the fact that the report found the crew had not received adequate simulator training from the airline, he defended the company, saying "Nobody is perfect in this entire world." Since the suspension of the pilots, all other Garuda pilots have undergone the appropriate training missed out by Garuda.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said in a statement made after the report came out "I am quite astonished. I can understand how people who are still grieving, both in Indonesia and Australia, might feel."

The Opposition Leader, Kevin Rudd, has said he has telephoned secretary-general of Indonesia's foreign affairs department and former ambassador to Australia Imron Cotan, telling him that he wanted those responsible "prosecuted to the absolute full". "This is a serious matter, many Australians visit Indonesia, Garuda is an often used airline and there is a basic national interest at stake here as well," he said.

A Garuda 737, comparable to the one involved in the disaster.
Image: Terence Ong.

It is, however, stipulated in the Convention on International Civil Aviation that accident reports and related material, specifically transcripts of interviews, communications with crew and cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder (collectively known as black boxes) readouts, must not be used for any purpose other than determining the cause of an accident or incident. The only possible exception to this is where potential benefit would outweigh the "adverse domestic and international impact" on the investigation in question or any other either in progress or in the future. This legislation is in place to provide protection to witnesses on the basis that without it they may be less likely to cooperate with investigational procedures.

Downer's response to this law was to comment that "I think our first priority is to make sure those who are responsible - who survived the accident - are brought to justice." Aridono Sukman, the police member in charge of the criminal investigation, has said that the contents of the black box are vital evidence. Officials have commented that some relatives have expressed their frustration over the legal challenges involved in the prosecution effort.

Tatang Kurniadi, chairman of the Indonesian National Transportation Safety Committee, has already confirmed that investigators cannot speak to the police, with the only permitted testimony under the legislation being to testify at a court hearing. He also pointed out that the document does not actually appoint any blame. "The investigation determined the flight crews' compliance with procedures was not at the level to ensure the safe operation of the aircraft. That's enough," he said. However, Sisno Adiwinoto, a police spokesperson, told reporters the police would attempt to summon the investigators to court as expert witnesses on aviation, rather than as the actual investigators involved with the disaster.

Another fact that has become apparent is that the runway at Adisucipto International will not be lengthened to meet international standards despite assurances that work would begin shortly. The airport claims it cannot build the mandatory 90-metre runway end safety area because, says a small-print comment by the state-owned airport operator, the airport does not have the land." It has, however, promised to bring other airports under its jurisdiction up to standard, with work initialising next year. The company has also stated that a study of engineering methods providing alternative solutions could be completed by June.


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