Hijack alert raises serious questions
A 28-year-old man from Queensland caused a scare on a Virgin Australia flight bound for Bali leading the pilot and copilot to enact a full hijack alert.PT0M49S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-37bpo 620 349 April 27, 2014
Serious questions are being asked of Virgin Australia's pilot and copilot after they enacted full hijack alerts to deal with an unruly passenger on board a flight to Bali on Friday.
Virgin has confirmed that the pilot or copilot activated a 7500 alert code – which, in international aviation terms, signifies a hijack under way – but did not de-activate it after it became clear it was a drunk or drugged Queensland plumber banging on the cockpit door.
However, airline sources have defended the pilot's action, saying it was "as per training" and it was not within the pilots' power to change the activation, pointing the finger at air traffic control.
Matt Lockley being arrested by Indonesian Air Force soldiers after landing on the Virgin Australia 737-800 plane at Ngurah Rai airport in Denpasar. Photo: AFP
The man who sparked the incident, Matthew Christopher Lockley, 28, is in police custody in Bali and has claimed he was not drunk but confused. He says he had knocked on the cockpit door believing it to be the toilet.
He insists he consumed no alcohol, saying he had only taken four Panadol, two Voltaren and drunk two Coca-Colas at Brisbane Airport before boarding flight VA41 to Bali.
But airport authorities have also turned to investigating the pilot and air traffic control staff for triggering full military procedures over the alert and closing one of Indonesia's busiest airports during the Friday peak for almost an hour.
Digital composite of Matthew Lockley being escorted by Indonesian authorities and a picture from his Facebook. Photo: Getty Images / Facebook
"We are investigating the possibility of negligence on the part of the pilot or even air traffic control," said a senior airport authority source.
"The pilot definitely definitely pushed the distress call, which raises a red alert, and means the incident was referred to the Indonesian airforce. There's another button that can deactivate it and now we're asking why the pilot didn't do that."
The pilot and air traffic control operators were interviewed in Bali late on Saturday after security experts were flown in from Jakarta. If they are found to have been negligent, they could face criminal charges under Indonesian law.
Shortly after the incident, a Virgin spokesman described the problem as "miscommunication". On Saturday, a company spokeswoman said that, after the hijack alert was activated, communications had continued between the pilot and air traffic control.
The airline would not comment on the negligence claim but a source said Virgin staff did not control the designation of flight VA41 as a "compromised plane" in the Bali air traffic control computer.
They speculated that the alert had stayed active because the plane was close (about 45 minutes flying time) from the airport.
The pilot of the 737-800, Neil Cooper, is a former Channel Nine cameraman who has flown for more than 24 years and is a qualified instructor. He joined Virgin Australia in 2002. He and copilot Ryan Stockwell were questioned on Friday and again on Saturday over the incident.
The incident affected 139 passengers and directly caused delays to 13 flights trying to enter or leave Bali airport.
But Indonesian aviation consultant Gerry Soejatman, who was at Bali airport at the time, said tens, or even hundreds of thousands of people may have had plans disrupted as the blockage flowed through Indonesia's clogged aviation system to Jakarta airport and beyond.
"Someone is not telling us something; Virgin, air traffic control or someone," Mr Soejatman said.
"If the guy was already restrained, the captain should have said reduced the alert level."
He said a drunk passenger was arrested about once a month travelling from Australia to Bali, mostly on Virgin flights, so this situation should not have caused such alarm.
Mr Lockley remains in police custody as blood and urine tests are carried out.
He has told Bali police that he was coming to Indonesia to try to find his Indonesian wife.
Bali police spokesman Hery Wiyanto said Mr Lockley had claimed in questioning overnight to have been asleep for most of the flight but, after being woken by the crew for a meal, came to believe he had lost his bag.
He became distressed, then, in an attempt to go to the toilet, ended up at the cockpit.
"He thought the cockpit was the toilet – he thought he was banging on the door to the toilet," Mr Wiyanto said.
As the commotion prompted the pilot to issue a hijack alert, the crew grabbed Mr Lockley and restrained him.
The alert went out at from the plane at 2.05pm local time (4.05pm AEDT) and the plane landed at 2.50pm.
The hijack alert invoked a "red alert" and put the Indonesian military in charge of the operation. While air traffic control continued communicating with the pilots to land the plane, a response team gathered on the ground.
Bali airforce commander Colonel Sugiharto Prapto Waluyo said that, even after the plane had landed, it was 30 minutes before airport authorities could contact the crew.
In the meantime, the airport was closed and the plane isolated off the runway. Two heavily armed hijack teams led by the Indonesian mobile brigade boarded and quickly extracted Mr Lockley, to the applause of other passengers.
As he was being removed from the flight, Mr Lockley said in Indonesian: "I am Indonesian." Police say he has a rudimentary understanding of the language.
Police are considering charging the Queensland man with endangering flight safety, which carries a prison sentence of up to two years or a 500 million rupiah ($47,000) fine. He will be detained while charges are considered.
Police say Mr Lockley was visited on Friday night by four or five friends and a representative of Australia's Consulate-General in Bali.