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Indonesia Confronts Drug Use Among Pilots

Sara Schonhardt

The Indonesian airline industry has made progress toward mending its reputation — amid soaring demand — after a series of spectacular crashes in recent years drew international attention to the country’s poor safety record. Now it has a new problem to deal with: drug abuse among its pilots.

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Lion Air has faced several arrests of its employees over alleged drug use.

The police arrested a pilot from the country’s largest private airline, Lion Air, last Saturday on suspicion of possessing crystal methamphetamine, a psychostimulant that increases alertness and concentration and can create feelings of euphoria.

It was the fourth such arrest of a Lion Air employee in seven months, raising fresh concerns about the airline industry’s safety and security standards, and heightening pressure on the government to enact stricter airline regulations.

Rising demand from Indonesia’s growing middle class has pushed airlines to add routes and purchase more planes.

The number of airline passengers increased 15 percent last year, to 66 million, according to the Transportation Ministry, which expects demand to rise further this year.

To accommodate the demand, Lion Air signed a $21.7 billion deal with Boeing last November for 230 short-haul 737 jets, the biggest commercial order in the U.S. plane maker’s history.

Some Indonesian transportation officials say the industry is understaffed, with pilots under pressure to work long hours. Indonesia has 57 airlines, including charter services, and about 7,000 pilots. “That’s not enough,” Bambang Ervan, the spokesman for the Transportation Ministry, said this week.

Ertata Lananggalih, Lion Air’s managing director, denied that its pilots did not receive sufficient ground time, explaining that the airline was subject to bimonthly audits to ensure it adhered to regulations on health and safety. He said the airline would work with the National Narcotics Agency, known as B.N.N., to monitor pilots’ activities regularly. “We will know how to more effectively prevent drug use, starting from recruitment and training,” he said.

Over the past year, the Transportation Ministry has withdrawn the flying licenses of the four Lion Air pilots arrested in the last seven months, including the one arrested last Saturday. The police, after an early-morning raid on a hotel in Surabaya, in the province of East Java, said the pilot, Syaiful Salam, 44, was in possession of 0.4 grams of methamphetamine. Mr. Salam was scheduled to fly later that morning.

Benny Mamoto, the head of the narcotics agency’s operations task force, said drug use was part of a lifestyle among some pilots who have money to buy drugs like crystal meth and ecstasy.

Indonesia’s civil aviation safety regulations require all flight staff members, including pilots and flight attendants, to undergo periodic health checks. Pilots must also submit to drug and alcohol tests before receiving their licenses. But carriers are not required to conduct random drug and alcohol tests, said Mr. Ervan, the Transportation Ministry spokesman.

“The drug and alcohol testing program is still voluntary,” he said, adding that Indonesia’s civil aviation authority had drafted a new regulation, similar to rules in the United States and Australia, that would require national airlines to test air crew members regularly. “We will issue it soon,” Mr. Ervan said.

In the meantime, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation will continue to perform random checks. On Tuesday, officials conducted urine tests on about 100 airline crew members at Sukarno-Hatta International Airport, serving Jakarta. One co-pilot’s urine tested positive for drug use. Mr. Ervan said the co-pilot would be barred from flying while narcotics agents investigated further.

In September, the International Air Transport Association, a global airline industry group, issued a statement in support of Indonesia’s recent efforts to improve its safety record.

But Garuda, the state-owned airline, is the only Indonesian airline that has received an air safety certification from the association, which has stringent standards for safety management.

The European Union has banned most of Indonesia’s airlines, including Lion Air, from flying to Europe because of safety concerns.