An air crash is not the result of a single event in isolation; it is a chain of events that lead to a disaster. This was seen during the two previous crashes in India – the 2010 air crash at Mangalore and the 2000 tragedy at Patna.
As the focus shifts back to flight safety and airports in India with the recent crash of the Air India Express IX1344 at Kozhikode, it is important that we learn and act on past mistakes.
The crash of Alliance Air B737-200 at Patna raised questions about the airport. The relatively shorter runway at the airport along with high temperatures in summer months make the airport risky. The most popular solution of runway extension is not feasible at Patna since it has a protected biological park at one end, and a major railway line at another!
While most airports in the country have some or the other obstructions such as concrete structures on the approach path, in Patna there were trees that could grow to obstruct a landing and it required complex permissions to prune them.
About eight years ago, the regulator had come up with a proposal to allow only turboprop flights in Patna, as a measure of flight safety. This idea did not move beyond the proposal stage and today Patna is one of the top airports in the country in terms of passenger traffic.
Air Force Station Bihta – 30 kilometers from existing Patna airport - will have a new civil enclave that will serve as a second airport for Patna. While this has been in the pipeline for last four years, it is far from reality as of today. Also, a second airport may take care of the traffic congestion at the older airport, but not the safety aspect.
In 2010, IX-812 crashed in Mangalore. The table-top runway at Mangalore came in focus and so did many others. A recommendation to increase the runway length remains unheeded, without much being done since then.
While Patna, Mangalore and Calicut are civil airports, things could be complex for air fields controlled by the armed forces. Airports like Pune, Goa, Jamnagar or Gwalior were primarily designed keeping in mind the needs of operating fighter jets. Thus, these airports have obstructions like a safety end, at the ends of their runways. For years, there has been demand to have another airport at Pune, Goa, Vizag or Patna but little has moved as the country battles challenges related to land acquisition and resettlement.
There are multiple airports in the country which were classified as “airports which pose a safety risk”. Much has also been said and written about table top runways and while table top runways are not risky per say, the risk is higher in case of a runway excursion. But little has been done.
Need for transparency & continuity
The Narendra Modi-led government in its second term now has put aviation in focus with ambitious schemes like RCS – UDAN. While the scheme's focus is to connect the unconnected and under-connected, the government has also been taking credit of the growth in air traffic and increase in commercial fleet even after the demise of Jet Airways. The government has also had its focus on transparency.
The initial days saw the Prime Minister using technology to bring in transparency; right from having a dashboard of attendance at various departments being made public, to every department looking at ways to share real time information with the public.
In the first term, when Jayant Sinha was Minister of State for Civil Aviation, a portal was launched to file and track complains – Air Sewa. There also was a mobile application and by the end of the term of the government, an enhanced version was also out.
While Sinha was dropped from the second term, Air Sewa also disappeared! It speaks volumes about continuity and accountability – assuming that the portal and mobile application wasn’t developed for free. While it is common to see schemes being dropped when governments change, this became a case of dropping something that was being pushed on every occasion – just because the minister changed!
Need for more accountability
From every disaster, there has to be a learning and improvement – without which we could potentially be staring at another disaster. With the regulator DGCA revamping its website and the Civil Aviation Ministry also updating its regularly, it is time to have details on airports.
For instance, what is the safety status of an airport, risk assessment and a time line towards improving anything highlighted as a risk. This has to be detailed out, with information on the accountable manager, and responsibilities should be fixed in line with the citizen charter, to ensure a turnaround time is known and tracked.
Pressure groups who work to attract airlines to their cities should also work towards ensuring that all safety measures are in place and efforts are undertaken to ensure safe operations at their favorite city’s airport.
The problem with transparency reforms is that – it is easier said, than done!Ameya Joshi runs the aviation analysis website Network Thoughts.