John McBeth – Straits Times
First, a declaration of interest: I have known pioneering entrepreneur Susi Pudjiastuti and her pilot-husband, Christian von Strombeck, for the last eight years — not long after they bought their first airplane to fly seafood from the south coast of Java to Jakarta.
Susi’s feisty spirit, and leg-length tattoo, initially got my attention. But observing the ease with which she mingled with fishermen and officials alike, it soon became clear there was a lot more to her than that.
Using their own money, the couple flew their single-engined Cessna Caravan to Medan to help in the Aceh tsunami relief effort. Weaving along a runway strewn with debris, Christian was the first pilot to land in the devastated west coast town of Meulaboh.
Relief agencies soon began chartering the Cessna and the whole purpose of buying it changed dramatically.
Over the following years, Susi Air’s fleet expanded to 47 aircraft and its operations to 180 flights a day across some of the remotest parts of Indonesia.
Perhaps, as Christian acknowledges, it grew a little too fast because the airline has now run into some bad weather.
For all its focus on maintenance and safety, it has had three fatal accidents in less than a year — two in Papua and one in East Kalimantan.
Susi was devastated and initially unsure whether to carry on. While both provinces present some of the most challenging flying conditions in the world, the couple don’t use that as an explanation — or an excuse.
With safety inspectors initiating an audit of the airline, Christian has spent hours at his laptop analyzing what went wrong and making improvements to his flight management system. “We’re confident we have found and are solving the problems,” he says.
In the latest crash in April, a Pilatus Porter ran out of fuel and struck an embankment as the South African pilot tried to make a dead-stick landing on a paved mining road. He and an Australian surveyor aboard were killed, during what had been a five-hour, low-altitude terrain-mapping exercise.
Much of what Susi Air does is just as exacting. Its fleet of Caravans and Porters, flown by a stable of 184 mostly foreign pilots, provides the only air link for many small settlements — from offshore Aceh in the west to rugged Papua in the east.
The hazards are many and varied. Last September, an Australian pilot and his Slovenian co-pilot were killed when their apparently overloaded Caravan went down south of the Central Highlands valley town of Wamena.
Two months later, another Susi Caravan crashed into a mountain slope in western Papua after taking evasive action to avoid a villager crossing Paniai’s Sugada airstrip. The Spanish co-pilot died in the wreck, but the New Zealand captain survived.
Susi Air is now by far the largest of the 34 Indonesian airlines licensed for 30 or fewer passengers, which have sprung up to meet a massive 15 percent annual increase in passenger and cargo traffic. It currently logs 42,000 hours a year, a staggering number considering the annual 450,000 hours chalked up across the United States by all commercial aircraft in the under nine-seat category.
Last year, Susi carried 40,000 customers and reported earnings of Rp 200 billion ($21 million), a strong enough performance to support the $100 million purchase of a further 16 planes after an 18-month hiatus.
The new aircraft are needed to service 15 newly authorised routes — in Aceh, West and East Kalimantan and West Papua — with the government providing Rp 44 billion for ground facilities and fuel costs.
The grant is part of Rp 296.4 billion in subsidies Jakarta forked out this year to support operations in remote areas not serviced by the larger airlines.
These budget carriers’ cheap prices have helped push domestic passenger traffic over the 60 million mark last year.
But as the industry expands, so have the risks. Half of the 13 fatal air accidents between 2007 and last year were the result of pilot error and usually over mountainous terrain.
Susi Air gives its pilot applicants psychological and aviation skills tests, whittling down its stream of applicants by about 60 percent.
Most of its 177 foreign pilots are new graduates from overseas flying schools, anxious to get their flight time up over the 1,000-hour mark — the point at which they are considered for captain of small single-prop aircraft.
But as Christian has discovered, once they have served out their additional one-year contracts, they become prime candidates for recruitment by the major airlines, Cathay Pacific in particular.
Susi’s 87 captains — many from Australia and New Zealand — have an average of 2,500 hours under their belts. But only 18 have been with Susi for three years or more. Indonesia now has 7,100 pilots flying its skies, up from 5,900 in 2006.
Foreigners fill a yawning gap because only 200 Indonesians graduate each year from local and regional flying schools, about half of what is required.
As with the country’s overtaxed infrastructure, Indonesia is failing to develop sufficient human resources to keep pace with surging growth rates.
Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times