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Indonesia's air transport sector underwent a period of radical liberalization following the 1998 fall of former president Soeharto. From just a handful of airlines, there are now over 30 operating. This has had both positive and negative effects for passengers. The extra competition has meant cheaper fares, so the option of flying is no longer out of reach for many people. There are also many more routes than in the past, making previously isolated parts of the archipelago more accessible. On the downside, licenses were handed out, seemingly, willy-nilly to new companies, some of which failed to meet safety standards.

EU ban and safety issues

The European Union in June 2007 banned all Indonesian carriers from flying into its territory. This decision came on the heels of various accidents and incidents involving Indonesian airlines. The fact that only one of its airlines flew into Europe anyway was beside the point. The Indonesian aviation industry realized it had big problems. It reacted by revoking the licenses of a few airlines, and implementing a tiered safety-rating system for the remaining ones. It was not of much comfort to passengers that only the national flag carrier, Garuda, made it into the top category.

There has been a definite effort to upgrade, or to be seen to upgrade safety monitoring in recent years. The blanket ban on flying to the EU was partially lifted in 2009, with Garuda, Airfast Indonesia, Express Transportasi Antarbenua, Indonesia AirAsia, Mandala (now Tigerair Mandala and due to cease operations in July 2014) and the now defunct Batvia Air being taken off the blacklist. In 2011, the ban was lifted on four Indonesian cargo carriers.

Garuda flight
Flying is, of course, the quickest, most effective way to get around the archipelago and airfares, despite the global trend of rising ticket prices due to high fuel prices, remain quite affordable. Garuda is the best known, and priciest, domestic airline. It has quite an array of routes, covering the major cities and Bali and also flies to a number of Asia-Pacific countries, Australia and Saudi Arabia. The number one airline in the country now is Lion Air, which flies many domestic routes (a few not covered by Garuda) and to a handful of neighboring countries. If you want to get to some of the remoter parts of Indonesia, you may have to use one of the smaller airlines like Pelita or Susi Air. Jakarta is the main hub of the country, but most flights destined for the far-flung eastern islands originate in Bali. A typical airfare from Jakarta to Bali (1.5 hours) would be about Rp 1 million (US$110) on Garuda or around Rp 700,000 (US$80) on a smaller carrier. A longer flight from Denapasar (Bali) to Sorong in Papua (2.5 hrs) will cost about Rp 2.5 million (US$300) with Garuda.

Veteran domestic carrier Merpati, which started in 1962 and served remote areas, was in February 2014 forced to indefinitely suspend services because of financial difficulties.

No-frills airlines

As in a lot of the world, cheap no-frills flying has galvanized the industry. In Indonesia, this is mainly in the form of Indonesia AirAsia, a branch of the very successful Malaysian company. AirAsia flies routes within the country, using Jakarta as its hub, and also connects various Indonesian cities to Kuala Lumpur. Unlike other airlines, purchasing of tickets is done exclusively online and prices vary according to availability and demand. AirAsia has a good Web site for this purpose, which is more than can be said of the other airlines. While many purport to offer online booking, their Web sites are often not functioning properly, if at all. AirAsia and Lion Air excluded, booking a budget Indonesian ticket online can be a thankless task, which is a real problem if you're outside the country. Having a good friend or trusted travel agent in the country would help. If you can get past their unnerving call for everyone to say a prayer before takeoff (no joke!), AirAsia is a good bet.

The Lion king

Lion Air started small in June 2000, when businessman Rusdi Kirana leased a Boeing 737-200 and began offering flights between Jakarta and the West Kalimantan capital of Pontianak. Lion Air has since developed into Indonesia's biggest airline, covering most provinces and flying to Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia.

In March 2013, Lion launched a Malaysian subsidiary called Malindo Air in a joint venture with Malaysia's National Aerospace and Defence Industries. In December 2013, Thai Lion was born. The next plan is an airline in Myanmar.

Lion made history in March 2013 when it signed a $24 billion contract with Airbus for the purchase of 234 A320s. It was the biggest commercial order ever booked, beating Lion's previous record of a $22.4 billion order for 230 Boeing jets in 2011.

Despite it successes, Lion does not enjoy a stellar reputation. Its flights are often delayed and it has suffered a few landing accidents, of which only one involved fatalities. Inside the seat pockets of Lion's planes are prayer cards, inviting passengers to pray for a safe flight.

Lion flights can be booked online or bought at Lion offices. Lion also operates budget carrier Wings Air and in 2013 launched a full-service subsidiary called Batik Air, which aims to compete domestically with Garuda. Conversely, Garuda in 2012 overhauled its budget subsidiary Citilink in an effort to compete with Lion

Delayed? Be patient

A problem is punctuality. None of the carriers is immune to delays, although some are worse than others (Garuda is considered reasonable, while AirAsia is fairly bad and Lion is occasionally punctual). The Transportation Ministry in 2012 implemented a decree stipulating that passengers are entitled to compensation of Rp 300,000 ($25) if their flight is delayed by more than four hours. This replaced a 2008 regulation, under which passengers of delayed flights were compensated with a little snack and some water.

If an airline loses your baggage, you are entitled to compensation of Rp 200,000 per kilogram up to a maximum of Rp 4 million. Should you die in a plane crash caused by operator negligence, your family can claim compensation of Rp 1.25 billion ($105,000).

Links to main Indonesian airlines

Garuda Airlines

Lion Air


Mandala Air

Sriwijaya Air

Batik Air


Susi Air

Pelita Air

Trigana Air

Airfast Indonesia

Contributor: Nick Aarons

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