Crash raises issue of India's aviation safety

Crash raises issue of India's aviation safety

An Air India flight that crashed after landing in Mangalore on Saturday killed 158 people and raised questions about India’s oversight of a rapidly growing aviation industry.
The immediate cause of the accident appeared to be pilot error: The Boeing 737 overshot the hilltop runway where it was landing in Mangalore, one of India’s trickiest airports.
But pilots and safety experts said the error may have been compounded by weaknesses in India’s safety inspection regime, inadequate training and an airport that critics said should never have been built in such a difficult spot.

“This incident should not have happened,” said Kapil Kaul, who heads the Indian and West Asian business of the Centre for Asian Pacific Aviation, a consulting firm.
Aviation officials said the pilot missed the landing threshold, a critical section of the runway at airports where runways are short because of hilly terrain. The plane, arriving from Dubai, then veered off the runway and struck a concrete navigational aid. Only eight of the 160 passengers and six crew members survived.

“As soon as we landed, the tire burst,” one of the survivors said from his hospital bed. “Within three seconds there was a fire blast. The inside was filled with smoke.” He said he escaped through a crack in the fuselage.

The accident focused attention on India’s booming but troubled aviation industry, one that reflects the contradictions of a nation with one of the world’s fastest-growing economies but where electricity is irregular and clean water scarce, and many people struggle to survive on less than a dollar a day.

Start-up commercial airlines have grown exponentially here in recent years. The number of domestic air passengers has tripled in the past five years, and the number of international passengers travelling to and from the country has doubled.
But infrastructure and safety have not kept pace, Kaul said. Industry and government must make a ‘quantum leap’ to catch up on safety and training, he said.
Many airlines, including Air India, are losing hundreds of millions of dollars. In New Delhi, where the government is building a new 42-acre terminal, power failures sometimes shut down runway lights and air traffic control equipment.

Although India has had few major accidents in recent years — the last major crash was in 2000 — the number of near collisions and other safety problems has been increasing. Last year, for instance, there were three near-collisions at the airport in Mumbai. In New Delhi, several people were killed in 2008 by vehicles on the tarmac.
Mangalore, in the Western Ghats, has other limitations imposed by geography. The newer runway, while shorter than those in other major Indian airports, is more than adequate for landing a Boeing 737, aviation experts said.

But critics said it was neither long enough nor wide enough to allow room for such a large jet to compensate for error. Environment Support Group, one of several groups that sued twice to stop the airport’s expansion, said the new runway did not comply with existing Indian laws or international standards.

The lawsuits also said the site was unsuitable for heavy commercial traffic because it was on a plateau, surrounded by industrial smokestacks and garbage dumps that attracted birds, and it would be impossible to reach airplanes that crashed off the plateau quickly enough to rescue passengers. The high court dismissed the case, and the supreme court dismissed an appeal in 2003.

“This particular incident appears like a pilot error, and therefore it can happen anywhere,” said Sanat Kaul, who also once was on Air India’s board of directors. “Aviation safety is a bigger issue, and it shouldn’t be mixed up with a crash like this.”

Experience
The pilot, identified as Zlatko Glusica, 55, a British citizen of Serbian origin, had landed the same aircraft in Mangalore 19 times before. He had 7,500 hours of flying experience, including 3,500 on this type of plane, Kaul said.
In addition, aviation officials said that the weather was clear. And the plane, a Boeing 737-800, was relatively new, having made its first flight in December 2007, according to the Aviation Safety Network. The 737-800 has been involved in five fatal accidents since entering service in 1998.

But investigators were still trying to determine what factors may have led to the error and caused it to be so devastating.

Experts say India has been lax in training aviation specialists, including air traffic controllers, maintenance engineers, pilots and regulators. Kaul estimates that just 10 per cent of the industry staff members trained at local schools are qualified to do their jobs.
A 2006 audit by the International Civil Aviation Organisation found hundreds of safety violations, and scored India worst on ‘technical personnel qualification and training.’
Inadequate pilot training has bedeviled the aviation industry, especially as it has expanded. Many airlines have hired foreign pilots because demand for air travel was outstripping the pace at which India could mint new pilots.

The industry employs about 600 expatriate pilots, but the government has ordered airlines to replace them with Indians by next summer, raising concerns about how the country will be able to produce enough qualified pilots so quickly.
India requires 200 hours of flying time and a high school diploma to co-pilot a passenger airline, compared with 1,500 hours required by the American Federal Aviation Administration, according to Mohan Ranganathan, an aviation consultant and former pilot.
Pilots here said that even that minimum requirement is often skirted.
“A lot of people I graduated with, if I knew they were flying a plane I wouldn’t get on it,” said one newly minted commercial pilot in New Delhi who did not want to be quoted by name criticising his peers.

“Basically you pay the flight schools a lot of money” and in return they give you a license, he said. Trainee pilots sometimes pay others to fly the required hours on their behalf.
Pilots say Air India has a reputation for paying well and not requiring long hours, but the planes often have technical problems. The company’s engineers often find loopholes to clear planes to fly, said one commercial pilot who flies for another airline.
The aviation industry has also been plagued by a shortage of qualified safety inspectors.
In April 2008, the director general of civil aviation, Kanu Gohain, said India had just three airline safety inspectors for 10 commercial airlines and 600 planes, well below global norms. While the government has since been able to raise the number — by hiring 14 permanent inspectors and temporarily borrowing another 14 from commercial airlines — Ranganathan says many are inadequately trained. Moreover, lapsed inspections from the last few years have set safety back for several years to come, he added.
“If you look from 2004 to 2009, they were just very few safety audits done,” he said. “It’s only in the last year that things were done. We are paying for that.”
The New York Times

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