JAKARTA, Indonesia — When a team of UN auditors visited Jakarta in May to rate the country's aviation safety, they came to a troubling conclusion. Indonesia was well below the global average in every category, and scored just 61 percent in airworthiness.
The audit reinforced the fact that Indonesia, which scored far worse than impoverished neighbors such as Laos and Myanmar, has a chronic problem with aviation safety.
Although in recent years there were glimmers of hope that aviation safety might be improving, the crash of AirAsia Flight 8501 into the Java Sea on Sunday has renewed concerns that Indonesia cannot keep up with the ever-growing popularity of air travel as incomes rise and low-cost carriers multiply.
What role, if any, the failings of Indonesia's aviation system played in the crash of Flight 8501 might not be known for weeks. But in a country of 17,000 islands, where cheap flights are replacing the ferry journeys that Indonesians use to take across the archipelago, the chances of dying on an Indonesian plane, while rare, are unacceptably high, specialists say.
Arnold Barnett, a statistician at MIT who specializes in airline safety, said that the death rate in airplane crashes over the past decade in Indonesia was one per million passengers who boarded. That rate is 25 times higher than that in the United States.
"To assert that the disparity is only a coincidence or manifestation of bad luck would be preposterous," Barnett said.
Investigators looking into Flight 8501, which went down with 162 people onboard, will zero in on the minutes between 6:12 a.m. Sunday, when the pilot asked for permission to change course to avoid stormy weather and 6:14 a.m., when the tower lost contact with the Airbus A320.
By Wednesday night, with recovery teams fighting turbulent weather and rocky seas, seven bodies had been recovered, three women and four men. Contrary to some reports, there were no confirmed sightings of the fuselage, much less the flight data recorder.
What is known so far about the ill-fated flight offers only vague clues to why it plunged into the sea. Flying in stormy conditions around 40 minutes after takeoff from Surabaya, Indonesia's second-largest city, on a quick hop to Singapore, the pilot requested permission to change course.
Ground controllers granted the request to veer left but denied the request to ascend to a higher altitude, which was reserved for another AirAsia aircraft.
Then nothing. The aircraft sent no distress signal. The fact that bodies were discovered intact in the sea has led to speculation that the aircraft might have hit the water in one piece.
Insurance companies charge Indonesian airlines nearly double the global average for premiums per passenger because of their poor safety history. Airlines in only a handful of countries in Africa and Latin America pay more, while most other Asian carriers pay less.
The European Union bans 62 Indonesian carriers from flying to Europe for safety reasons. That ban used to include the Indonesian subsidiary of AirAsia, but the European Union has cleared Garuda, Indonesia AirAsia, and a few other carriers over the last several years as they have worked to improve safety.