in Indonesia

When i created an itinerary to visit 6 regions in Indonesia in October 2015, little did i know of its reputation as the “worst place to fly” on earth. Just last year, The Telegraph published an article explicitly illustrating the dangers of flying in Indonesia, a country which has seen at least 40 air crashes in the past 15 years, highest for any single country. It’s so bad that hundreds have lost their lives flying the “relatively safer” airlines too like Air Asia and Garuda, which is probably why Europe has banned all but 4 Indonesian airlines to enter their airspace.

Like most other travelers, I wasn’t aware of this fact.

My initial itinerary of the 20-day trip in Indonesia

New Delhi-> Jakarta-> Medan-> Padang-> Bali-> Surabaya-> Sorong-> Jakarta-> New Delhi

The bad weather in Northern Indonesia due to forest fires forced me to take Padang off the list. Barring the Delhi-Jakarta and Jakarta-Medan flights, every other journey was a nightmare from the get go. There were various fears:

  • Fear of bad weather leading to plane crash.
  • Fear of communication failure leading to plane crash.
  • Fear of old aircraft leading to plane crash. The list goes on.

Journey 1: Jakarta- Medan, LionAir

Our first flying experience within Indonesia, from Jakarta to Medan in the early hours of 6 October was more funny than bad. The flight was from Jakarta’s domestic airport which is smaller than its international airport…and far less organised. While collecting the boarding passes, we saw many locals who had taken the privilege of sleeping on the floor, making it difficult for many travelers to carry their luggage. You have to make your way through the sleeping passengers to get to the departure gates, which becomes difficult if you are in a hurry. Once upstairs, we spent some time at the cafes and proceeded to the gate half an hour before the scheduled departure and here’s where things started to get confusing. While waiting for our flight announcement, nowhere was our flight status displayed on the screens. After waiting for a while, we decided to ask the airport staff about it…except there was no one at the gate. Announcements were in Indonesian language. With only fifteen minutes left for the flight to depart, we started to panic. Passengers started walking towards the gates, but was it the same one as ours?? Where should we go? What if we board the wrong flight? Finally, just 10 minutes before the departure our flight name came up on the screen, much to our relief and we hastily boarded the plane with just five minutes to go. The flight itself was of 3 hours and was comfortable.

Journey 2: Surabaya- Bali, KalStar Aviation

It was the smallest aircraft I had been on, if you don’t count the 8-seater Cessna i flew with in Tanzania. Now size isn’t a problem at all…unless all the seats have luggage underneath them. The flight’s overhead luggage compartment was a little too small, requiring passengers to keep their luggage under the seats or in the aisle for the entirety of the flight. Thankfully the discomfort lasted only 1 hour and we reached Bali on time. Hats off to the stewardesses who managed to walk through all the luggage in their heels!

Journey 3: Surabaya- Sorong, Sriwijaya Air

We wanted to prepare for the twelve-hour journey to Raja Ampat which included two flights, a ferry and a motorboat ride, so we were well-rested before the flight. But one problem after the other started popping up at the airport. First, our flight to Makassar faced constant delays with Sriwijaya Air’s employees clueless about the ETD. Finally our flight took off after a two-hour delay. The aircraft was small but really old, possibly one of the oldest ones they have. The turbulence during the flight didn’t do much to boost our confidence in them. But the worst part was that after about twenty minutes of take-off, the pilot decreased the cabin temperature, turning the flight into a blast freezer! The locals, who i assume were aware of this practice, were armed with heavy jackets. Clueless travelers like us were all dressed for the tropical climate of Indonesia. After about half an hour of the bone-chilling cold, I called the FA and requested him to turn down the AC.

“Pilot”, he simply said.

I insisted.

“OK, I tell Pilot”.

But guess what? A few minutes later the cabin was still freezing and out came the Flight Attendants with shawls…for sale! I refused to buy one and relentlessly asked them to turn down the AC, which they mercifully did after half an hour. The second flight, from Makassar to Sorong, was pretty much the same.

Journey 4: Jakarta-Delhi, Malindo

Our final flight in Indonesia was by far the worst flying experience. Ten minutes before boarding, the passengers were informed that the aircraft had developed a technical glitch and it would be delayed; no indication of ETD. We waited for over five hours at the boarding gate amid many agitated customers who picked many fights with the clueless ground staff of Malindo Air. Out of 3 representatives, only one could speak English and I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him after he had to control the angry mob. When the time came for us to board the flight, I asked him if the “technical glitch” was sorted. “I don’t know”, he replied. Huh?! I spent the rest of the flight praying.

The worse part of the journey came after we reached Kuala Lumpur. There we were told that our connecting flight to Delhi had departed and we have to spend the night in Kuala Lumpur. Generally in such situations the airlines arrange for transit visas so that passengers can get out of the airport and spend the night in the city, but at Immigration we learnt that Malindo was barred from doing so in Malaysia. The airline staff informed us that we have to spend the night at the airport hotel, at our expense. This was the last straw for the already angry people and abuses flew. Finally after two hours of incessant arguments the airline arranged for accommodation at the airport hotel. Our flight the next day to Delhi took off on time.

From our experience of sampling different airlines in Indonesia, Sriwijaya Air and Malindo were perhaps the least pleasant ones not just for the in-flight experience, but also for their customer handling service. I feel that although research or contemplation won’t help you much in getting a good flying experience in Indonesia, awareness certainly will.

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