Safety first

The near collision in Mumbai airport of two aircraft carrying around 220 passengers calls for immediate steps to improve safety standards in our airports. Both the planes were reportedly given the green signal by Air Traffic Control (ATC) to take off from diagonal runways simultaneously. A collision was averted in the nick of time by an ATC official who ordered one of the aircraft to halt. This was just a few seconds before the aircrafts were to take off. In February this year, an Air Force helicopter of President Pratibha Patil’s fleet landed on a runway seconds before a Delhi-bound passenger plane took off on the same runway.  A few days later, a plane carrying 43 passengers from Dibrugarh to Kolkata and an aircraft of the Aviation Research Centre (ARC) came within 300 feet of each other. A collision was averted as the pilot of the passenger aircraft immediately dropped altitude. Collisions were averted in all three incidents. But we might not be this lucky all the time. We need measures to improve safety. It is unfortunate that instead of learning from their mistakes, civil and military aviation authorities, ATC officials, airlines and pilots have been busy over the past few months blaming each other. In the circumstances, another mishap was bound to happen.

 Only recently, the government decided to allow 24-hour use of Mumbai airports cross-runways, provided conditions like good visibility, adequate manpower and so on are fulfilled. In fact, this was to come into effect on Monday. The near collision at Mumbai on Sunday indicates that our airports are still not ready for this.  Aviation officials have observed that while 24-hour use of cross runways would increase the number of flights taking off per hour, the increase is marginal. The risks involved in having multiple flights take off at the same time far outweigh the gains.

 Increased air passenger traffic and congestion of runways and airports has resulted in airports across the world looking for ways to address the problem. And round-the-clock use of cross runways has been one way of doing so. It has worked in other airports and it could in India too. But before attempting to put cross runways to use 24/7 we need to improve efficiency and safety standards of our airports. ATC is obviously understaffed and overloaded with work. Its officials can ensure safe air travel only if they are provided with more hands and state-of-the art equipment.

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