Medan, Indonesia – When Indonesia announced the Boeing 737 Max would be allowed to fly in its airspace after a nearly three-year ban, Anton Sahadi’s memories of Lion Air Flight 610 washed back.
“I was a little surprised when I heard the ban was lifted,” said Anton Sahadi, whose wife lost her two 24-year-old cousins when the planes crashed into the Java Sea on October 29, 2018, told Al Jazeera.
“I do not see why it had to happen so quickly while we were still mourning.”
Indonesia’s Ministry of Transport allowed the Boeing 737 Max to fly late last month, following an extensive review of the aircraft and a series of proposed improvements by the Indonesian National Transportation Safety Committee.
The Lion Air crash, which killed all 189 people on board, and the Ethiopian Airlines crash less than five months later grounded 737 Max aircraft around the world and dropped Boeing’s share price. Indonesia was one of the last countries to clear the plane to fly again after lifting the ban in the United States, China, India, Europe, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan and Australia.
Sahadi learned there was a problem with Lion Air Flight 610 from a line running text at the bottom of a program he was watching on Indonesian television on October 29, 2018.
There was breaking news: Flight 610 lost contact with air traffic control just 13 minutes after its flight from Jakarta to the city of Pangkal Pinang in the Bangka-Belitung Islands.
“My wife was in Mecca at that time in Saudi Arabia and she was the one who told me that her cousins Riyan Aryandi and Ravi Andrian were on a plane to the same destination at the same time,” Sahadi said and describes how he drove in a blind panic to Jakarta’s Soekarno Hatta Airport International Airport, crossed the speed limit and arrived in record time.
“At one point I saw a copy of the manifesto and I knew it was true that they were on the plane.”
The cause of the crash remained unclear until Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed on March 10, 2019 en route to Kenya from Addis Ababa, killing all 157 people on board. Flight 302 was also a 737 Max.
The Lion Air Accident Report published almost a year after the crash, the blaming finger squarely pointed to the design of the plane.
“After our investigation, we found that there were several weaknesses that needed to be rectified, especially with the MCAS,” Surjanto, the head of the Indonesian National Transportation Safety Committee (NTSC), told Al Jazeera.
MCAS, or the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, is a flight stabilization program implemented on the newer models of the Boeing 737 Max.
“If an aircraft goes into a stall, the system will automatically prevent the stall from taking place,” Surjanto said. “The purpose of the system was good, but its weakness was that it did not clearly communicate to the pilots what was happening and it caused confusion.”
On Lion Air Flight 610, a sensor on the outside of the aircraft incorrectly indicated that the nose of the aircraft was too high and that the aircraft was at risk of stopping. This caused the MCAS to engage and force the nose of the aircraft to avoid a possible collision.
Unsure of what was happening, the pilots fiddled with the plane’s manual for a way to correct the course of the plane before it sank in the Java Sea.
Sujanto, the NTSC chief, said cleaning a plane to fly again after an accident involved strict controls and procedures.
“There have been a series of upgrades to both the flight software and pilot training to ensure the maximum is done to make sure the 737 Max aircraft are safe,” he said.
Ethiopian Airlines has announced that it will lift its own ban in February 2022.
A Boeing spokesman told Al Jazeera that Indonesia’s decision was an “important milestone in returning the 737 MAX safely to service in Indonesia.”
“Boeing continues to work with regulators and our customers to re-employ the aircraft worldwide.”
The aircraft manufacturer says on its website that the MCAS has been updated so that it “only works in unusual flight conditions and now relies on two sensors, activating only once and never ignoring pilots’ ability to control the aircraft.”
‘Skeptics of bang’
It is not yet clear how Indonesian customers will react to the return of the plane, which also depends on airlines executing government-ordered airworthiness regulations.
“Even if the 737 Max is considered safe, it is likely that there will still be members of the public who are skeptical or scared,” Gerry Soejatman, an aviation expert in Jakarta, told Al Jazeera.
Prior to the ban, Indonesia’s national carrier Garuda operated a single 737 Max aircraft, but had already indicated that it did not intend to use it again after a debt restructuring exercise that would cut its current fleet from 142 to 66 aircraft. not.
Lion Air operates 10,737 Max aircraft, which according to Soyatman leaves the group with little choice of either continuing to fly or expelling the entire fleet.
“It will take time, either time for people to stop being scared, or time for the plane to be returned to the landlord,” he said.
For relatives of the victims, such as Sahadi, doubt exists. While Ravi’s body was identified after the accident, Riyan’s remains were never found.
“It was difficult. We could not bury him, “said Sahadi. “I hope that the government has carefully verified everything and put all the proper procedures in place first.”
“I do not hope they will risk their lives for the sake of business.”