Monday, 24 May 2010

Mangalore plane crash: lessons need to be learnt

India had experienced a relatively safe period in civil aviation history over the last decade until the morning of Saturday 22 May 2010, when Air India Express flight IX 812 from Dubai overshot the runway at Bajpe Airport, Mangalore, and plunged into the valley below, killing almost everyone onboard. Air India Express is a low-cost subsidiary of India’s national carrier Air India, and most of the passengers on this flight would have been low-income expatriate workers in the Gulf. Only eight passengers managed to jump out of a gap in the fuselage and escape, while the remaining 158 passengers and crew were killed. Many of these people would have been looking forward to spending a short break with their family and friends. Sadly, apart from the lucky few, they met their end soon after their Boeing 737-800 aircraft touched down.

Already the suspicion is falling on the commander of the plane, Capt Zlatko Glusica, who was a British national of Serbian origin. Eyewitness reports suggest the plane landed some 2,000 feet past the touchdown zone. The plane then veered off the runway, after suffering a suspected tyre burst, and crashed through the airport perimeter wall to the valley below. Bajpe Airport has a reputation for being a difficult airport because it is located on a hilltop with a drop of 100 metres on all sides. Although the runway is sufficient in length for most small aircraft, such as the Boeing 737, the margin for error is small with little overshoot space. Pilots are required to undergo special training before they operate from Mangalore.

The “black boxes” and the cockpit flight recorder, which have been recovered from the crash site, will be crucial in piecing together exactly what went wrong. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) in India will be responsible for carrying out the investigation. However, one must bear in mind that the DGCA is an integral part of the government of India, and whatever its findings they will not be perceived to be truly independent. Previous investigations have tended to pin the blame on the pilot, even though other factors may have been involved, and an air of mystery still surrounds many past accidents. "To my knowledge in the last 50 years no inquiry report has been made public," Kapil Kaul, head of the Centre for Asia-Pacific Aviation in South Asia, told Reuters.

The Indian aviation industry has enjoyed phenomenal growth over the past decade with a number of new private airlines starting operations and many Indians taking to the skies. India’s air safety record has been remarkably good during this time. A number of near misses in recent years at Indian airports, including Mumbai and Delhi, have, however, raised question marks about whether the infrastructure is keeping pace with the growth in air traffic in the country. From personal experience, I think there is a general problem with all types of infrastructure not keeping pace with economic progress in India. This adversely affects safety. "Safety standards in Indian aviation have been on the wane for the last six years. Efforts are being made to correct the drift, but the systematic rot is so deep ... we are not likely to see any improvement in safety unless drastic changes are made," A. Ranganathan, an airline safety consultant and pilot instructor, told Reuters.

I do hope the DGCA will conduct a proper investigation of this accident. They owe it to the victims, their families, and Indian air passengers in general. Apart from the obvious suspicion of pilot error were there other factors that could have contributed to the disaster? Was there any communication problem between the Serbian pilot and his Indian co-pilot? Were they sufficiently well trained? Was fatigue a factor? Was the runway dangerous? Did the airline’s procedures contribute in any way? Is Mangalore waiting to happen at other “table-top” airports in the country like Kozhikode? This would be a good time to carry out such a review. It is quite easy to blame the dead pilot for the crash, for he has no voice to defend himself. The attitude should be to do as thorough an investigation as possible and learn from the mistakes in order to avert the possibility of a similar accident in the future.

It has emerged that the Environment Support Group (ESG) had objected to the building of the second runway at Bajpe Airport on the grounds that the design simply did not conform to the most basic national and international standards of airport design. Twice it took the case to the Karnataka High Court, but the case was dismissed. Finally the ESG petitioned the Supreme Court, which too dismissed the plea while emphasising that laws and norms be followed while expanding the airport. Not heeding this direction, construction of the second runway began in 2004 without a techno-economic assessment, feasibility study, or even a comprehensive Environment Impact Assessment. "This was no accident, but apparently the failure of officials in ensuring proper construction of the second runway at the airport resulted in the tragedy," alleged Leo F Saldanha, coordinator of ESG. The ESG had previously suggested a more appropriate location for the second runway would have been towards north of the old runway. This option was not even considered, as the acquisition of such lands would displace about seventy large landholding families that were well connected politically.

I do have the highest regard for Indian pilots, who I believe can be matched to the best in the world. Having flown into some dicey Indian airports in the past, such as the old Cochin Airport, which offer very little room for error, I know that it was the skill of the pilot more than anything else that ensured nothing went wrong. But relying on the skills of the pilot alone without the support of the underlying infrastructure is risky, especially at a time when Indian aviation is experiencing high growth. In an industry in which safety is critical it is important that standards are not compromised. It is essential that proper investments be continuously made to ensure the highest levels of safety are always maintained. If India is serious about the safety of its air passengers, it must have an independent air safety board which is transparent and free of political manipulation.

Despite this tragic accident, air travel remains incredibly safe. It is statistically safer for you to travel on a commercial airliner than it is for you to cross the road. Improvements in technology and lessons learnt from past mistakes have made air travel safer. Air travel is increasing worldwide. However, the fact remains that since an aircraft is a machine and a human being is responsible for flying it, there is always the risk of something going wrong. The best we can do is to minimise that risk, which involves learning the lessons from accidents such as this one in Mangalore and taking safety seriously.


Joseph Pulikotil said...

Hi JL:)

This is an amazing critical report that is fit to be published in the editorial of a leading English daily in India.

I have read newspaper reports on this tragic accident but have not paid much attention except the fact that about 50 Malayalees have been killed.

At present the Maoists and Naxals have gone on a killing spree and several CRPF personal have been blown to pieces.The government appears to be helpless to tackle this terrible situation.

Your post is an eye opener and gives a deep insight into the overall situation about the air industry in India.Your careful study and wise thoughts are truly amazing.

Best wishes:)

JI said...

Thanks for your comment Joseph. I try to research my subject well before writing about it. Many journalists nowadays are quite sloppy and biased in their reporting. I have some journalistic/writing ambitions, which I try to pursue in my spare time.

I have been interested in aeroplanes ever since I flew on one when I was a young boy. I hope the lessons will be learnt from this accident in order to avoid a similar one happening again.