The air traffic control (ATC) official who averted the collision between a Jet Airways flight and an Indigo aircraft on Wednesday had a slice of luck. Spotting the Indigo plane from the ATC tower located a few hundred metres away was not easy, especially because the airfield was pitch dark.
As in this case, lack of coordination between air and ground traffic control was the common factor in the past few near-mishaps. Simply put, a plane on the tarmac stood in the way of a plane about to land or vice versa.
On April 20, a Kingfisher flight to Bhavnagar carrying 30 had to abort take-off because a GoAir flight that had just landed was late in vacating the runway. Similarly, a Kingfisher flight cancelled take-off because an Air India flight landed on the same runway last October.
Air safety experts feel that a Surface Movement Radar (SMR) would make the ATC’s work simpler by ensuring proper coordination between ground and air traffic.
A Directorate General of Civil Aviation preliminary report on Wednesday’s incident also recommended installation of the SMR. The radar can capture anything, from a dog to a jumbo jet, moving on the tarmac even during low visibility. “It makes traffic management in the air and on the ground easy,” said MG Jhunghare, general manager, ATC (western region).
The Airports Authority of India (AAI) has procured the radar but it is lying wrapped in boxes because officials are struggling to find a suitable spot to install it. “The airport’s ground infrastructure is set to change constantly because of the modernisation,” said an AAI official requesting anonymity as he is not authorised to speak to the media.
Delhi’s is the only airport in India to have the SMR.
In an airport like Mumbai’s, SMR is crucial because flights simultaneously take off and land on runways that intersect. “The window of error is small. A small gap in coordination between pilots and the ATC could lead to disaster,” said a Boeing commander with a private airline.
Worse, India’s second busiest airport has one-third of its air traffic manager posts vacant. Despite several demands to augment manpower, the department that handles 700 take-offs and landings every day is short of more than 100 personnel.
Upgradation of the airport’s air navigation set-up is adding to the pressure. “In addition to our existing work, we are being trained to use the new technology,” said a tower controller.
The airport is likely to get software that gives real-time information of touchdowns and alerts the ATC when two planes are too close to each other.
May 27: A Jet Airways flight aborted landing because an Indigo flight was blocking the runway.
April 20: A Kingfisher flight aborted take-off to ensure that a GoAir flight, which had landed, was off the runway.
October: A Kingfisher aircraft was about to take off when an Air India flight from Nagpur landed on the same runway.
September: An Air India flight had a narrow escape as a dog sauntered onto the runway just as it was about to land.