It’s been just over a decade since the last major air crash involving an Indian airline and there are some unsettling parallels between the two aviation accidents. Both the May 2010 crash in Mangaluru and the one at Kozhikode Airport late Friday involved Air India Express flights that were landing in wet weather at “table-top airports,” so called because they’re built on flattened hilltops surrounded by sheer drops. In the far deadlier Mangaluru crash, the pilots misjudged the runway length and the jet plunged into the valley below and exploded, killing 158 people while eight survived. In Kozhikode, the plane, a Vande Bharat flight transporting Indians home from Dubai, fell just 35ft and luckily didn’t catch fire even though the fuselage split. Eighteen people aboard the flight died, including the pilot and co-pilot, while 172 survived.
The reasons for the Kozhikode crash should soon become clearer thanks to the recovery of the undamaged flight-data and cockpit-voice recorders. The pilot, Deepak Sathe, and co-pilot, Akhilesh Kumar, were seasoned flyers who’d landed at Kozhikode several times. It’s a mystery why Sathe, a decorated ex-Air Force test pilot, decided to land the Boeing 737 if he felt it was too risky. All planes are supposed to have enough fuel to reach an alternative airport and Kochi, Coimbatore and Kannur airports were all close enough. The plane far overshot the designated touchdown spot. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation had recommended lengthening the runway, but the Kerala government had difficulty implementing this because of cost and local resistance to land acquisition. A DGCA inspection team had also commented unfavourably about the runway surface but other civil aviation officials dismissed these as standard remarks of no great consequence.
While airport authorities said the Kozhikode airport meets specifications, these may need to be re-visited if it’s found runway infrastructure contributed to the crash. Pilots undergo additional training before being cleared for landing at table-top airports like Kozhikode, as well as take-offs and landings in India’s turbulent monsoon weather, but industry insiders say many airlines have not implemented these rigorously. Two crashes of a roughly similar nature are two too many by any standards and point to potential deficiencies that must be rectified. It should also be considered whether the Kozhikode crash could have been prevented by installation of an Engineered Material Arresting System (EMAS) which is a bed of special materials at the end of a runway to halt an overshooting plane. Installation of an EMAS system was recommended for all table-top airports after the 2010 crash, but authorities deemed it too costly. There is an urgent need for an immediate safety review of all airports, particularly those presenting risky or challenging conditions. Both the Ministry of Civil Aviation and the DGCA also need to transparently disclose why recommendations of previous inquiry committees and safety audits were not implemented. India’s aviation market has been witnessing explosive growth in recent years but this growth cannot be at the cost of safety.