The tragic aviation accident on Friday evening at Kozhikode airport which claimed 18 lives has once again foreground the issue of aviation safety in India. An Air India Express Boeing 737 flying in from Dubai overshot the runway while trying to land in rainy weather. What we know is that the aircraft’s commander, an Air Force veteran, was a seasoned pilot. It was his second try at landing that evening and the plane landed beyond the touchdown point. Consequently, it overshot and given that Kozhikode has a tabletop airport, the aircraft plunged 35 feet.
The flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder have been recovered, which should help the Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau identify the cause of the accident. The last such major mishap in India took place at Mangalore, another tabletop airport on the west coast, in 2010. The Court of Inquiry, headed by an Air Force veteran, found that the Mangalore accident was on account of the pilot’s mistake. Over the last couple of days, civil aviation minister Hardeep Puri has asked people to refrain from speculating on the cause of the Kozhikode crash. What will help – given that citizens’ anxieties are understandable – is ensuring that the unedited investigation report is placed in public domain.
The investigation may take time but there should be no delay in turning the spotlight on the overall approach to aviation safety. An investigation two years ago by The Economic Times, using RTI, unearthed that 98% of the airports did not even calibrate the critical Instrument Landing Systems in a timely manner. It’s a pointer to a casual approach. The investigation also found that Shimla’s tabletop airport did not have service roads to allow fire engines quick access in the event of an emergency.
The government showcases the vibrancy of India’s aviation market. It has made increasing the density of India’s aviation network by using dormant regional airports a key policy plank. Yet, given the existing approach to safety, there are legitimate questions here for the aviation regulator DGCA and the ministry. Separately, there have been reports of near misses at different airports. And amidst the Covid-induced aviation slowdown, there are concerns whether maintenance has also slowed down. Safety culture really has to change for the better. One way to ensure this is greater accountability and another is to be transparent about safety audit reports. This will create pressure from stakeholders to improve standards.