Around 2:30pm on January 19, the Central Committee Control Room (CCCR) at Delhi airport flashed an emergency message to the top security establishment across the Capital: an Indian Airlines flight has been hijacked at the airport.
The IA flight had been moved to bay 26 from runway 27. The two hijackers — speaking only in Malayalam — wanted to fly the plane, with 51 passengers on board, outside Indian borders. One passenger had already been killed and the hijackers had threatened that no vehicle should come near the aircraft.
The standard operating procedure in a hijack situation was activated. This is what happened: the Delhi police SWAT (special weapons and tactics) team did not know where to go, the Quick Reaction Team (QRT) that should have been concealed as it approached the aircraft was visible from either side, another aircraft taxied past the hijacked one, even though it was in isolation. An ambulance sent to the AI plane had no radio contact with CCCR. The crisis management team had no communication with the aircraft.
As critical minutes were being lost, things were going from bad to worse. The Delhi government official assigned to handle the situation never made it. The negotiator from the central government came much later than scheduled.
Ninety minutes into the exercise, those in the thick of the action were told it was a mock drill. By that time, it was clear few lessons had been learnt from the IC-814 hijack to Kandahar in 1999.
The Delhi airport was clearly under-prepared to handle the situation, exposing many chinks in the response mechanism system.
The Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS), the aviation security regulator, in a confidential report listed over three dozen glaring flaws, sending the top security establishment into a tizzy.
The drill found that a few members of the CCCR were unaware of where the control room was, fewer were aware of their roles and responsibilities. It took ages to get a translator — when one was found, he refused, saying his superior’s permission was essential.
By the time the permission came, half the exercise was over.
"The report clearly indicates the quality of protection available. If this can happen at the most secure airport in India, one has to worry about the plight of passengers and crew at other airports. Our aviation safety system is safe only from political and commercial points. Operationally, it is still unsafe,” said Capt Mohan Ranganathan, a Chennai-based aviation expert.
"An anti-hijack drill is basically a replication of a real-life situation. Usually, one or two such exercises are carried out in a year and are preceded by months of detailed planning. As secrecy is key to the success of such an exercise, only a handful of officials are aware that it is a mock exercise.
For the rest, it’s an actual hijack,” a senior civil aviation ministry official said on condition of anonymity.