This morning, Lion Air flight JT610 crashed into the sea just minutes after leaving Indonesian capital Jakarta, with 189 people onboard.
At the end of last year, I flew with Indonesian carrier Lion Air from Lombok to Jakarta.
It wasn’t meant to end up that way: I was booked to fly from Bali to Hong Kong, where I lived at the time, but the late November eruption of Mount Agung, on the island’s eastern side, put paid to that.
We were stranded on Lombok. The carrier I’d booked with, Hong Kong Airlines, messaged to say the flight from Bali was cancelled. Denpasar Airport was closed for two days, leaving thousands stranded on the paradise island.
I was on the nearby island (it’s about an hour’s boat journey between the two), having decided not to fly directly there because a) it involved a switch in Jakarta airport (and the air con in the domestic terminal is rubbish) and b) because the options for an onwards domestic flight weren’t that palatable.
But given that flag carriers and full-service airlines that would have transported us back to Hong Kong – Cathay Pacific, Garuda Indonesia and Hong Kong Airlines – had got cold feet and cancelled a rash of flights, we went for the next best option: Lion Air from Lombok to Jakarta, with a switch to Air Asia for the Indonesia to Macau leg. As I remember, it was the only airline (alongside subsidiary Batik Air) operating from the island that day.
So we boarded flight JT655, two days after we were supposed to fly from Bali. It was a Boeing 739, a narrow-body jet used to making the short hop from Lombok to the capital. The flight was fine: the air crew slightly frazzled from having to deal with passengers stranded due to Agung’s ash, but otherwise pretty much what you’d expect from a budget airline.
I was just happy to be leaving Lombok and escaping Mount Agung, whose eruption looked like it would continue to disrupt travel for thousands over the next few months. Only when skirting Mount Agung across northern Bali, moments after take-off, did I peer out of the window to see the the ash puffing from it, and it occurred to me that perhaps it wasn’t exactly top flying conditions.
Sadly, Lion Air is no stranger to air accidents. In 2013, a Lion Air Boeing 737 overshot the runway at Bali’s Denpasar Airport. The fuselage broke up, but all 108 people on board survived. Then in 2011, a Lion Air flight overshot the runway at Sepinggan Airport in Indonesian Borneo.
There’s always a risk when you fly, however minuscule. Even on airlines that are considered safe by Iata, the international aviation trade body. For me it was either fly Lion Air with a less than glowing safety record, or wait it out in Lombok for the next week. And I'd make that choice again.