Air India crash a hundred wrongs later

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Like so many other plane crashes, the disaster in Mangalore is the consequence of official laxity, says Shantanu Guha Ray

Avoidable tragedy The charred remains of the plane and investigators hunting for the black box amid the debris
Photos: Getty Images

SECONDS AFTER television channels beamed footage of the air India express flight that crashed after landing in Mangalore, killing 158 passengers, a seasoned aviation expert called his friends in the directorate General of civil aviation (dGca) and hollered: “Had you listened to me, this crash could have been averted.”

Chennai-based a ranganathan was referring to a 2006 audit by the International civil aviation organisation (Icao) in which he and others had sifted through reams of documents and pinpointed hundreds of safety violations. The violations had taken place due to substandard qualifying norms and training of air technical personnel. Yet, no one in the dGca or its parent body, the Ministry of civil aviation, took notice of the report that identified the crisis zones in the rapidly growing aviation industry. Worse, national Geographic channel, which had shown interest in producing programmes on those zones was politely told to back off.

“Very few in India understand air safety, which is totally distinct from air security,” ranganathan told teHelka in a telephonic interview. He should know. for although India’s last major crash occurred nearly a decade ago in 2000, there has been a steady rise in the number of near mid-air collisions. Three were reported just last year from Mumbai airport, while five people were killed in delhi in 2008 by airport vehicles on the tarmac. as for smaller violations, those are not even taken cognisance of by the DGCA and the airport authority of India (AAI). “They simply don’t have the means to check these, such as the security clearance of baggage loaders,” says ranganathan who, over the years, has kept a tab on what he terms routine safety violations. “look at the new air traffic control (ATC) tower in Mumbai, which is lying idle because it is precariously close to the runway. now, who cleared that? Why is it that the old atc is still being used?” he asks.

Substandard qualifying norms for technical personnel have been a factor in most crashes

“An alert India could have averted this disaster,” argues Kapil Kaul, a top aviation expert who heads the delhi-based centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, hinting at inadequately trained inspectors for the airlines. But the million-dollar question is: who will bell the cat? The Mangalore crash is India’s worst since 1996, when a mid-air collision between two passenger planes in Charkhi-Dadri, 125 km from Delhi, killed 349 people. There was a time when delhi had just three inspectors for 10 commercial airlines and 600 planes — well below the global requirement. Though their numbers have gone up since, most of the new entrants are inadequately trained. Moreover, lapsed inspections since 2005 have created a backlog that may take years to clear.

Much the same is true of the pilots, most of whom are poorly trained. Meanwhile, there has been a five-fold increase in the passenger load. Many airlines that hired foreign pilots (some 600) are now being told to replace them with Indians, but nobody in the government has paused to consider the logistics. How long will it take to find efficient replacements? nobody has the answer to that.

No one to blame? Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel at the crash site

It has long been known that delhi is far behind in observing global aviation norms. all that’s needed to become eligible for co-piloting a passenger aircraft is 200 hours of flying time and a high school diploma — 50 hours less than is mandated by the american federal aviation administration. Many international airlines are now pressing for a minimum of 1,000 hours. shockingly, too, flying schools in India have been issuing licenses without pushing for even these most basic requirements. In 2008, an air India express flight from Mumbai to dubai overshot by 560 km after its pilots fell asleep due to fatigue. “The Mangalore crash too looks like a pilot error,” says sanat kaul, formerly on the air India board of directors. The DGCA has often received confidential reports on how trainee pilots have paid others to fly on their behalf.

Top DGCA officials seeking anony – mity say both state-owned and private carriers were being penalised for violating norms. often, for instance, harassed passengers are forced to pay for boarding crowded aircraft with hand-issued passes. “This comes at a huge risk, because in the event of an accident, the passenger, being unregistered on the flight, will not appear in the airline list. also, the cash is routinely pocketed by the staffers who work in collusion with inflight attendants,” says a top DGCA official. “These and allied issues came to light after the pilots complained of gross anomalies in the load and trim sheets.”

Civil aviation Minister Praful Patel’s repeated claims that poor planning was a factor in the Mangalore crash have been strongly countered by the environment support Group (ESG), an independent think tank which — despite three failed court cases — still maintains that the new runway does not comply with Indian and global standards; and that the site — a plateau surrounded by garbage dumps and industrial smokestacks — is unfit for heavy commercial traffic. “The crash was no accident, but a direct result of a series of deliberate failures of officials and key decision makers,” says an ESG release. and the aircraft, a Boeing 737- 800, has itself been involved in five fatal accidents since entering service in 1998, says Aviation Safety Network.

What, however, is not accidental is the callous attitude of those who have been put in charge of the safety of the passengers.

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