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Questions Raised Over Airline Safety in Indonesia

Critics raising concerns about Indonesia's disaster response system and the safety of the country's rapidly growing budget airline industry following the disappearance of a Boeing 737 on New Year's Day. Chad Bouchard reports for VOA from Jakarta.

After five days of conflicting reports in the search for the airliner of Indonesian budget carrier Adam Air, there is still no sign of any wreckage.

The airliner was carrying 102 passengers and crew on a domestic flight New Year's Day, when it vanished from air traffic controllers' radar. The airliner had reportedly changed course twice in bad weather.

The search initially concentrated on a mountainous area of Sulawesi Island. But, after thousands of rescuers failed to find evidence of the crash, the search was extended to a 72,500 square-kilometer area, mainly open ocean.

Search officials originally reported that the pilot issued two distress signals, but those reports have since been retracted.

The government also apologized for erroneous reports that 12 people had survived the crash.

Crisis management expert Ong Hock Chuan says the misinformation and confusion in the search demonstrates shortcomings in Indonesia's response to disaster.

"When you have public figures making huge fiascoes like this, it just gives the whole country a very bad image," he said. "It gives the whole world an impression that, you know, Indonesia doesn't have its act together. It's Keystone Kops time."

Ong says, officials with Indonesia's budget airlines have told him about what they say is an endemic lack of maintenance and safety standards within the industry.

Budget airlines have grown rapidly in Indonesia over the past few years, with cheap flights to many of the country's 17,000 islands.

Ong says officials have reported that maintenance records are rife with errors, and a black market for unreliable spare parts is growing.

Critics have also raised concerns about the progress of the search.

Transport officials have looked for two beacons that were aboard Adam Air flight 574, but several transmissions have been detected, confusing the search.

The country lacks the expensive equipment needed to track such signals by satellite, and is relying on satellite information from neighboring Singapore in the hunt for the plane.

Indah Sukmaningsih, chairwoman of the Indonesia Consumers Foundation, is troubled that airline safety in Indonesia is not up to international standards.

Sukmaningsih says passengers expect airlines and the government to have the highest level of safety and oversight. But she says the budget airline industry and transport officials need stronger regulation and enforcement.

She says consumers have a right to expect safety in the air, no matter what the cost of the ticket.

Government and industry officials contend that airline safety is high, with regular maintenance and strict enforcement of standards.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has launched a special investigation into shortfalls within transportation industries throughout the country.