Grounding our fears
The horrific air disaster at Mangalore airport on May 22, involving an Air India Express aircraft that killed 158 passengers, has marred the relatively unblemished safety record of Indian aviation. Even though the past decade has witnessed the emergence of new airlines and a significant increase in the number of aircraft deployed by them, along with a manifold rise in the number of passengers, the safety track record had remained outstanding — comparable to the best of global airlines.
The accident, as with every human tragedy, has unfortunately led to widespread speculation regarding the cause of it. Instead of awaiting the completion of investigation by India’s regulatory authority, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) — and leaving the issue to experts — various theories have already started doing the rounds. Was it an error of judgement on the part of the pilots? Is the new runway unsafe? Did the air traffic control (ATC) fail to guide the pilots during the plane’s approach for landing? Was there a communication gap between the ATC and the pilot? Was it on account of a technical glitch in the aircraft? The situation has been made murkier by bringing in absolutely unrelated issues like the induction of expatriate pilots by Indian carriers, particularly Air India.
Air India has, in its defence, stated that the B737-800 aircraft involved in the accident was a new one, inducted only in January 2008. The pilot, an expatriate, had over 10,000 hours of flying experience and the two pilots in the cockpit were familiar with the region and the Mangalore airport runway. All these are highly creditable factors for flight safety. The reality, however, is that notwithstanding these laudable credentials, the accident has taken place.
What has, however, been established with reasonable accuracy since the accident, possibly based on eye witness accounts and articulated by Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel, is that the aircraft had descended at a speed faster than usual. The glide slope wasn’t appropriate, as a consequence of which the aircraft touched the tarmac, not at the beginning of the runway, but about 2,000 feet ahead of the ideal touchdown point. How critical was this?
Those with a modicum of aviation knowledge would know that exceeding the ideal touchdown point isn’t uncommon even though the margin in this particular case could have possibly been much higher, therefore proving to be crucial. The speed of descent and the touchdown point have, thus, brought into focus the factor of the length of the new runway at Mangalore airport. Did the runway length of 8,000 feet prove to be inadequate?
At most airports, the length of 8,000 feet should be more than adequate for an aircraft of the size of a B737-800. The case of Mangalore airport is, however, different. Unlike most airports in India, Mangalore airport has a table-top runway, i.e. it has been constructed by filling in the gap between two hills. Considering the difficult terrain, it has been made mandatory for all pilots operating flights to and from Mangalore to undergo additional specialised training. One, therefore, needs to make a clear distinction between a ‘difficult’ and an ‘unsafe’ airport. Mangalore airport should fall in the former category. Kathmandu airport also has a table top runway and it has never been described as ‘unsafe’.
Several countries have airports that are not of the kind we are usually accustomed to seeing. The old Kai Tak airport in Kowloon in Hong Kong had a runway almost jutting into the sea. Barring one instance of a China Airlines aircraft getting its nose wheel in water in the early 90s, the airport had an absolutely outstanding safety record. All pilots operating flights to and from this airport were expected to observe the prescribed procedure for landing, and they invariably did.
So, what is of paramount significance is the kind of discipline that is exercised in the cockpit while using an airport with a ‘difficult’ tag attached to it. Did the experienced crew of the Air India Express flight falter on this count? It has been reported that the expat commander of this ill-fated flight was ‘popular’ with his co-pilots because he allowed them to land. Who was, therefore, in command at the time of landing — the commander or the co-pilot? This and many other issues will hopefully find an answer when the investigations progress, based on data decoded from the cockpit voice recorder and the black box.
While Praful Patel has taken the moral responsibility for this tragic mishap and offered to resign, it will be in every one’s interest if the investigations are conducted expeditiously. Considering the fact that the issue of the safety of the new runway in Mangalore airport has also been once again raised, and the DGCA was in the past responsible for according approval for this particular runway, the enquiry will need to be conducted in a fair and transparent manner and in its entirety. This will ensure that lingering doubts about the safety of the runway are put to rest once and for all. The test for Patel lies in getting the investigations completed and the report presented to the public in a fixed timeframe of no more than four to six weeks. This is imperative for restoring confidence of the travelling public.
Air India, on its part, must also take a fresh look at its operational procedures in the interest of flight safety. Debate them with the pilots, if necessary. It cannot allow pilots, so very critical for flight safety, to be perennially raising issues concerning safety. The tragedy is that the pilots have raised the safety issues far too often — in fact every time when they want their financial demands to be addressed. As a consequence, the management has treated them as a bogey on most occasions.
With Air India’s finances in disarray, the last thing that the airline can afford now is to have doubts regarding its safety record, which has otherwise been highly creditable.
Jitender Bhargava is a former executive director of Air India.
The views expressed by the author are personal.