From our man in the Far East

Jonathan Head, the BBC's south-east Asia correspondent, spent three years reporting from Indonesia. He experienced his fair share of danger there, getting beaten by militiamen in East Timor and earning an MBE for services to broadcasting along the way. In the light of the EU's recent ban on all Indonesian airlines due to fears over their safety, here he shares his experiences of perilous flight around the archipelago.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It wasn't the EU ban on Indonesian airlines that raised eyebrows among seasoned travellers here in Asia. We have all had those memorable flying experiences in which we have suddenly rediscovered the power of prayer. But banning fifty-one airlines? Since when did a country like Indonesia get so many? When I lived there in the 1990s there were just a handful.

Most of the time you had two choices. The national flag carrier, Garuda (reassuring fuselage slogan: '50 Years of Challenge'), which was the safest bet, and still is despite ploughing a plane into the runway in Yogyakarta earlier this year, on account of having at least a few aircraft manufactured after the end of the Cold War. The other was Merpati ('Get the Feeling'), which has a venerable fleet of patched up planes that serve remoter parts of the archipelago. The feeling you are most likely to get is raw fear.

Merpati (it means 'Pigeon') is the only airline operating planes actually made in Indonesia. Yes, Indonesia once had its own aerospace industry, run by an eccentric crony of then-dictator Suharto, B.J. Habibie, who had a theory. Exporting rice, he calculated, could only earn his country ten cents a kilo, whereas aircraft went for thousands of dollars a kilo, so why not make planes instead. Billions of dollars later the programme was shut down by the IMF, but not before it produced a local version of a small, Spanish 40-seater for which Mr. Habibie used to charge Merpati the price of a Boeing 737.

My most vivid memory of one was sitting in the front row as we rattled and shook our way down the runway. One of the flight attendants was buckled in the fold-down seat in front of me when, with a crack, it broke away from the bulkhead, and she toppled forward with a scream into the lap of the man sitting next to me. Very few of these aircraft are still in service.

Merpati pilots have a buccaneering spirit, brought on by years of take-offs and landings on remote island airstrips. They are pretty good. Every approach to the little airport in East Timor leaves your heart in your mouth, because the runway is very short, and there is no room for error. Most of the time the pilots smack the ancient jet neatly down on just the right spot. Occasionally they don't, and you ended up kissing the seat in front and hoping the juddering brakes will hold.

These pilots are not easily deterred by the obstacles that Indonesia routinely throws in their path. The annual forest fires that blanket much of the region in smog during the dry season play havoc with flight schedules, but the pilots really try. On one occasion when I was allowed into the cockpit, and we were making our third attempt to find Palankaraya airport through a haze that cloaked even the tree-tops, I asked one of the pilots what the minimum visibility was for landing. He just laughed. We seemed to feel our way down, the passengers sitting in grim-faced silence and fingering their worry beads.

Merpati is still going, but where did all the others come from? Names like Top Air, Lion ('We Make People Fly'), Wings ('Fly is Cheap'). Lion flies a few, strange Russian aircraft, but step inside some of the other airliners and they seem strangely familiar. Ah yes, 'schwimmveste unter dem sitz' on the seat-backs - they're the same batch of well-used 737s that Mr. Habibie bought from Lufthansa more then a decade ago. Different airlines, same old planes.

The ban on flying to the EU is unlikely to cause any lost sleep among Indonesian airlines, as none of them flies to Europe any more. Good thing really. The only time I ever flew Garuda back to Britain, the return leg took 32 hours. I'll spare you the details, but it was the only flight I have ever been on where the passengers screamed in fear during take-off. One of Indonesia's top human rights activists was actually murdered on a Garuda flight, after someone managed to lace his meal with arsenic.

But should you avoid flying Indonesian airlines locally? You don't really have any choice if you want to move around the country, there's no-one else to fly. Whatever you've read, they are certainly a whole lot better than many African airlines, and a whole lot safer than travelling by bus. And it's fun, if you don't think too hard about your family and you can take your eyes off the patches on the wings. Where else do you get the chance to fly in real museum pieces, marvels of an earlier age of aviation that hum, vibrate and smoke, just like real planes should?

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