AP: Indonesia Budget Airlines Questioned

The rapid expansion of Indonesia's budget airlines has raised concerns that growth has outpaced the supply of trained aviation professionals, regulatory oversight, parts and ground infrastructure.

Four years ago, young pilots lined up to join a new contender in Indonesia's booming aviation industry. But at least 20 left Adam Air within months, citing concerns that poor maintenance, corruption and rule-bending could lead to a crash - charges the airline denied.

"I didn't want to wait until I had lost my friends," said Feisal Banser, 30, a former Adam Air flight captain who knew several crew members on a passenger jet that crashed Jan. 1 with 102 people on board.

Adam Air, founded by Agung Laksono, the speaker of the House of Representatives, is one of dozens of privately held airlines to have emerged since Indonesia started deregulating the industry in the late 1990s, bringing cheap air travel to the sprawling island nation.

Experts say there is no evidence budget airlines are less safe than full-fare competitors, but the rapid expansion of the sector has raised concerns that, in Indonesia at least, growth has outpaced the supply of trained aviation professionals, regulatory oversight, parts and ground infrastructure.

"The industry growth is so fast and it's not matched by the growth of human resources," said Dudi Sudibyo, an aviation expert called on to advise President Bambang Susilo Yudhoyono about Adam Air Flight KI-574, which disappeared on New Year's Day during what was supposed to be a short hop between islands.

"There are not enough regulators, flight inspectors or planes," he told The Associated Press.

The Adam Air pilot did not issue a mayday before his plane fell off the radar in severe winds, and with the flight data recorder still missing, experts do not know yet what happened.

But the crash off Sulawesi Island's western coast - 16 months after a domestic Mandala Airlines passenger jet slammed into a bustling neighborhood on takeoff, killing at least 149 people - put the spotlight back on the aviation industry.

Adam Air has a fleet of 17 aircraft that fly to popular tourist destinations like the resort island of Bali and the country's cultural hub of Yogyakarta, as wells as routes to Singapore and Malaysia.

Sutan Salahuddin was among 17 pilots who jointly resigned from Adam Air in May 2005 citing alleged safety concerns. They are now being sued by the airline, which alleges they violated their contracts and owe the company training fees, according to the West Jakarta District Court, which is expected to issue a ruling within weeks.

The demand for pilots with ratings for jets such as the widely used Boeing 737-400 is so great in Indonesia that companies often poach them from each other, sparking lawsuits to recover training costs.

Banser and Salahuddin alleged that as part of efforts to save costs, parts were replaced or recycled, regulatory officials were bribed, or pilots were pressured to break international safety regulations.

Salahuddin, who joined Adam Air at its inception, says he left after essential problems with his plane's inertial reference unit, a key navigational tool, were repeatedly left unfixed.

"I saw how Adam Air managed the maintenance of the aircraft and I resigned to protect my life and the life of the passengers," the 35-year-old said, adding that he was once asked by the company's operations chief to sign documents clearing a flight because there was no technical engineer at the airport.

"He called me in the cockpit and told me to fly, but the aircraft was not airworthy," said Salahuddin who refused to take off, enraging his managers.

Adam Air's director of safety and security, Capt. Hartono, denied the allegations and all others claiming that the company knowingly violated international safety guidelines.

"These are just rumors," he said, refusing to comment further.

No other officials from the airline could be reached, several employees are believed to have changed their phone numbers since last week's disaster, and large sections of corporate information on Adam Air's Web site have been removed.

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