The skies around Jakarta were busy on Wednesday afternoon last week. Air traffic controllers at Soekarno-Hatta Airport giving directions to a Sukhoi Superjet 100 were also tracking 12 other flights at the same time. "This is a rather large number for a controller," said I Gusti Ketut Susila, president of the Indonesian Air Traffic Controllers Association, on Friday last week.
Air traffic control was thrust into the spotlight after the accident involving that Sukhoi Superjet 100 that day. Many have questioned the 'permission' given to pilot Aleksandr Yablonstev to descend from an altitude of 10,000 feet to 6,000 feet near Mount Salak, Bogor. Simple logic dictates that this is not a safe altitude, because Mount Salak is over 7,000 feet high.
During high-traffic hours, like that ill-fated Wednesday afternoon, the skies can be as crowded as Jakarta city streets. Planes need to line up, circling in the skies before they can land. "During busy hours, there can be a 20-30 minute wait in the skies," said Ervin Adhitya, a pilot with a private airline.
Pilot Aleksandr Yablonstev did not need to pass through any air traffic. The Sukhoi jet he was piloting was in a safe area known as a 'training area.' This area is 20 nautical miles or 37 kilometers south of Halim Perdanakusumah Air Base in Jakarta. Mount Salak is outside of the training area. According to Chappy Hakim, former Air Force Chief of Staff, airplane tryouts or so-called joy flights often make use of this training space.
Air control was still carried out by controllers at Soekarno-Hatta Airport. Ketut Susila said that the air traffic was getting congested. Meanwhile, there were not enough controllers. Ideally, one controller handles five planes simultaneously. At Soekarno Hatta, one controller can serve up to 15 planes. "It is so busy that controllers don't even have time to drink water," he said.
The duties of ATCs are not only to guide landings and take-offs. According to Susila, controllers also keep tabs on flights on the radar, until they enter the territory of other controllers. This includes maintaining safe distances between planes or reminding them if any objects can impact their flight. Things can get dangerous if they let their guard down. The burden on controllers becomes heavier, especially if all of the pilots ask to be given the next turn to land.
The pilots are aware of the high amount of pressure controllers are under in the control tower. As an indication of this, said one pilot, controllers speak too rapidly when giving instructions, so sometimes they cannot be heard clearly. Sometimes controllers raise their voices, as if upset.
It often happens that a controller gives the wrong order. One pilot said that a controller once mistakenly gave an order for a plane waiting its turn to begin its descent. "This order should have been given to another plane, but it was given to me instead," he said. Another time, a controller mistakenly gave an order to change the position of the airplane's direction. The plane was supposed to turn 330 degrees, or 11 o'clock, but the controller said turn 300 degrees or 10 o'clock. "Fortunately the error was quickly discovered. If not, we would have been way off course."
Chappy Hakim also criticized this air traffic control system. He feels that the equipment currently used to control air traffic is antiquated. The problem is, the number of planes is increasing. "Compared to Malaysia and Singapore, Indonesia is worst off."
Ervin Adhitya also feels that the equipment used by ATCs in Indonesia is far below the standard used in Singapore. They are already using weather radar to accompany the pilot. If there are cumulonimbus clouds or rainclouds, the controllers can quickly contact pilots and direct them elsewhere. For pilots, passing through those clouds is a rocky ride. But this is not the case in Indonesia. "Sometimes they are directed to go straight into the rainclouds," he said.
By Pramono, Rina Widiastuti, Ananda Putri
No. 38/12, May 16, 2012