The air travel industry in the sprawling archipelago is booming, with domestic passengers growing nearly five-fold over the past decade and airlines scoring billion-dollar deals with foreign plane makers. Until the Airbus A320-200 plunged into the sea on Sunday carrying 162 people, Indonesia appeared to be shedding its reputation for plane crashes, which had led the European Union in 2007 to ban all 51 Indonesian airlines from flying to the bloc.
"Now we can count accidents with our hands, a stark contrast to the accidents we had in 2007 and the years prior to that," said Dudi Sudibyo, a senior editor of aviation magazine Angkasa.
The AirAsia flight, which was travelling from the Indonesian city Surabaya to Singapore when it lost contact during stormy weather, looks set to be country's only deadly one in 2014, Sudibyo added.
Gerry Soejatman, an independent aviation analyst, said Indonesia had 0.18 fatal accidents per one million passengers in 2007, which had dropped to less than half that in 2011.
"The EU ban slapped Indonesia on the face, but because of that Indonesia then improved the safety standards," he said.
Accidents in 2007 included an Adam Air plane plunging into the sea off Sulawesi island on New Year's Day, killing all 102 people on board. That airline was later banned from flying.
In March 2007, a jet with flag carrier Garuda Indonesia burst into flames on landing in the province of Central Java, killing 21 people.
In more recent incidents, a Lion Air plane missed the runway as it came in to land in Bali in April last year, slamming into the sea and splitting in two. Dozens of the 108 people on board were injured, but there were no fatalities.
Chappy Hakim, a former air force chief, said the room for improvement in safety standards was still huge.
"In 2007 we were audited and we did not comply on a hundred things... and I (still) don't think we have complied to the international standards," he said, adding that the country was still short of inspectors.
Since the EU ban, only a handful of Indonesian airlines have been re-allowed in Europe, including Garuda and AirAsia Indonesia, which operated Flight QZ8501.
AirAsia Indonesia is a unit of Malaysian-based AirAsia, which dominates Southeast Asia's booming low-cost airline market and had previously earned a solid safety record.
Indonesia's director general of civil aviation said today that debris spotted during an aerial search of the Java Sea was from the missing plane. Rescuers also began to retrieve bodies with the latest toll at more than 40.
"This serves as a reminder we cannot stop improving," said Soejatman.
"If they don't improve safety with this kind of growth, you will have more crashes and at the end it could backfire and growth is going to decline."
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