Air safety in South is 'woeful'

Poor monitoring of airlines and lack of manpower cause for concern

Air safety in South is 'woeful'

Speaking to Deccan Herald on condition of anonymity, the official, who is integral to DGCA’s air safety unit, disclosed that “the southern zone has no proper regulatory system in place” that could otherwise mitigate air safety-related problems, including disastrous accidents.

The DGCA’s southern zone air safety division is headquartered in Chennai and includes other airports like Mangalore and Hyderabad. Saturday’s catastrophic accident involving an Air India Express Boeing 737-800 aircraft may not have been averted, but the official pointed out that it was compounded by “artificially created problems” in respect of “poor monitoring of airlines, improper and inadequate training, below par aerodrome surveillance and lack of manpower.”

Step-motherly treatment

Pointing out DGCA’s “step-motherly treatment” of the southern zone’s air safety division, the official, who has, in the past been involved in investigating air crashes and other aircraft-related accidents, said one indication of the “abysmal” situation is that the post of air traffic controller in Hyderabad has been lying vacant for the past few months.

Consequently, the official said that the various airlines operating from the airports in the southern region “have a free run” since there is “no accountability in the absence of any watchdog” which, in this case, should be the DGCA.

Incidentally, the Mangalore airport does not have a precision approach radar (PAR) on whose screen the horizontal (as depicted on a flat screen) flight along an ILS “localiser” and the vertical flight path along the glide slope are marked.

A PAR helps radar controllers to compare the information and alert the pilot that the aircraft is left of the localiser or above or below the glide path.  Localiser and glide path are elements of an instrument landing system (ILS).

On paper, the DGCA’s 2009 annual surveillance programme, which involved detailed inquiry into several elements of air and flight safety, including aerodrome standards, flight inspection, training and licensing and air safety appears to be exhaustive. In reality, however, the DGCA source said, the proposed surveillance programmes are glossed over.

A surveillance plan for 2010 has also been prepared, but with a “back-log” on executing the inquiry findings of previous years, it will be “near impossible” to meet this year’s target.

That the south zone has lagged behind on air safety is corroborated by a 2006 audit of safety audit of India by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) which focused on inadequate staffing levels and conflict of interest that could jeopardise passenger and aircraft safety.

While the DGCA source pointed out that even the Airports Authority of India (AAI) in some of the southern airports is “not under the control” of the DGCA, the ICAO report exposed that in 2006 the regulatory agency did not have a communication, navigation and surveillance (CNS) inspector who could oversee maintenance and inspection of CNS equipment.

In the context of Saturday’s disaster, competent DGCA sources said it is likely the pilot-in-command (Zlatko Glusica) may have failed to “establish a landing profile” and convey it to Mangalore ATC at the “decision height” when he was required to contact ATC for landing clearance.

According to DGCA rules, a decision altitude or height is a specified altitude or height in a precision approach at which a missed approach must be initiated if the “required visual reference to continue the approach has not been established”. It is at the decision height that the pilot, if unsure of glide path and landing approach, can “go around”.

Playing the cockpit voice recorded and decoding the black box will establish what parametres he chose during landing approach and whether he and the co-pilot engaged in “unwanted conversation” at a time when full concentration was needed for landing on Mangalore’s tricky table-top runway.

DGCA sources said a “combination of multiple factors”, including over-speeding, the pilot’s over-confidence, failure to establish links with facilities like ILS and what decisions the pilot took after getting landing clearance from the ATC.

The investigators, DGCA sources said, will also focus on information and data on whether Mangalore airport had installed ILS facilities that are required to be upgraded to Cat II and Cat IIIA/B levels that have automatic landing systems which provide automatic control of aircraft during approach and landing.

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