Kozhikode crash was completely avoidable
The long-delayed report by the Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau (AAIB) on the crash of Air India flight IX1344 at Kozhikode’s table-top runway last year offers a depressing litany of avoidable errors that would have saved the lives of 21 people, including the two pilots, and prevented serious injuries to 75 others. The headline rubric of “pilot error” masks a reprehensible organisational flouting of basic safety norms that brought tragedy to IX 1344, which was returning from a “Vande Bharat” mission to repatriate Indian nationals stranded in West Asia after the Covid-19 pandemic brought global aviation to a halt. The AAIB’S report suggests these infringements were the result of corners cut both by the commander and the airline’s personnel planners.
According to the report, the captain chose to ignore Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) and go ahead with the landing in heavy rain, after two failed attempts, even though the aircraft’s approach was beyond the touchdown zone. He ignored a “go around” call, a standard manoeuvre that discontinues an approach to landing, by the Pilot Monitoring. As a result, the aircraft overshot the runway and plunged into the gorge below, breaking into two. Three issues converged to explain why an experienced crew which has landed frequently in bad weather, which was the case on August 7, chose to ignore SOP. First, the AAIB report noted, the captain did not brief the control tower on tailwinds required to calculate landing distances, nor did he report a broken windshield wiper. Second, the copilot did not take over the controls, as he is mandated to do, after attracting the commander’s attention to violations of SOP, a pointer to serious defects in cockpit authority culture. Third, the commander took a decision not to divert the aircraft though there were alternative airfields available and sufficient fuel on board.
All three decisions were the result of the commander’s compulsion to land at Kozhikode owing to a faulty personnel planning policy. With just one commander at Kozhikode against 26 flying officers, he needed to be back at the airport to operate another Vande Bharat flight the next morning. Though Covid19 contingencies could be cited as extenuating factors for the Kozhikode accident, the fact is that the reasons for the crash — gross violations of SOP — were similar to those of another Air India tragedy 10 years ago at the table-top runway at Mangaluru, in which 158 people lost their lives.
Significantly, the AAIB report came just ahead of the government receiving financial bids for Air India and accelerating its airport privatisation plan. It, therefore, points to the challenges that private owners will face. It is worth noting that several private airlines ply these airports on scheduled flights without mishap, so inculcating an accountable safety culture in Air India should be top priority. Any private operator of the airports at Kozhikode — the Kerala government had opposed an Adani takeover — or Mangaluru would be held to higher standards of accountability and ensure the runways conform to international standards of safety. Doing so would demand investing in “arrestor bed”, specially engineered cellulite cement blocks used in airports with shorter runways. Proposals to install these safety systems by the state-owned Airports Authority were discussed as far back as 2007 and reprised in 2010 after the Mangaluru tragedy but were stalled for lack of funds. Only the government can get away with such negligence.