(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
June 14, 2009
NEAR MISS AT MUMBAI AIRPORT
Accidents Waiting To Happen
A POTENTIALLY horrendous disaster was somehow averted at Mumbai airport on May 31, 2009. Two aircraft with close to 250 passengers and crew on board simultaneously tried to take off from Mumbai’s two intersecting runways and would have collided with each other but for last minute action by both pilots and Air Traffic Control (ATC) to abort the take-offs. As is customary in such cases, an inquiry is being conducted by the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) while the pilots and the air traffic controllers involved have been taken off duty pending the investigation.
No firm conclusions can therefore yet be drawn as to causes. But again as usually happens in India leaks and rumours are flying thick and fast, obscuring the truth and building up a smokescreen behind which everyone, and thus no one in particular, is to blame. Yet there are already a number of indicators pointing to structural problems in Indian civil aviation safety with many factors contributing to accidents just waiting to happen.
In aviation parlance, a “near miss” is an “unplanned event that did not result in casualties or damage”. Many experts however believe that the term “near collision” is a more useful term since it better captures the reality that an accident almost occurred, rather than appearing to somewhat contradictorily suggest, as “near miss” does, that an accident was almost avoided. In any case, the point is that near collisions are always closely studied worldwide because fortunately, they happen hundreds or thousands more often than actual accidents and, at no cost, they provide invaluable lessons about what could go wrong, how and why, and what corrective steps need to be taken to prevent future such occurrences especially at the systemic level of safety procedures and institutional safeguards.
The near collision in Mumbai occurred when Air India’s Airbus 310 flight IC-348 to Delhi was speeding down one runway (Runway 9-27) prior to take-off, while simultaneously Jet Airways Boeing 737 9W-651 to Kolkata was similarly building up speed for take-off on the other intersecting runway (Runway 14-32). IC-348 was traveling at 70-80 knots (127-145 kmph), whereas the Jet craft was traveling at 90-100 knots (164-182 kmph), dangerously close to the “decision speed” (beyond which aborting take-offs could cause a crash) of 129 knots for B-737. Fortunately, ATC noticed the Air India plane rolling and directed the pilot to abort take-off, and the Jet pilot managed to do the same, apparently on his own initiative. How both aircraft were rolling to take-off at the same time, what instructions did they receive from ATC and when, and how exactly was the accident avoided, are precisely the subjects of the mandatory investigations now on.
Pilots of both the aircraft insist they had received clearance for take-off from ATC. If this is found to be true from examination of the radio-communication recordings, which surely should have become available and been fully transcribed by now, then the controllers in question have a lot to answer for. Equally, ATC could not knowingly have cleared two aircraft for take-off simultaneously on intersecting runways. Clearly some miscommunication had occurred, either by the ATC or by one or both of the pilots in understanding instructions received from ATC.
ATC spokesmen said take-off clearance had been given only to the Jet flight, not to the Air India flight and that, when the latter was noticed traveling down the runway, it was ordered to stop. A general manager of the airport responsible for air traffic and other air-side operations reiterated this position.
a spokesman for Air
The cockpit voice recordings should clear up what instructions were issued and acknowledged. It is surprising indeed that, more than 10 days after the incident, doubts on this score have been allowed to linger despite DGCA having said that the inquiry would be completed in a “couple of days”.
Air traffic control procedures are designed to obviate misunderstandings. Given differences in nationality, language, idiomatic usage, accents etc, standard and unambiguous terminology in English has been approved by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and is used by controllers and pilots worldwide.
one of the worst air accidents ever, two Boeing 747 Jumbo jets collided
runway at Tenerife airport on a Spanish island in 1977 killing over 600
passengers and crew, when one of the aircraft was “cleared for
take-off” by ATC
who actually meant to tell the pilot to wait for further instructions!
incidents involving air traffic control are becoming more common not
of increasing air traffic, especially in India with over 20 per cent
year, but also due to a critical shortage of well-trained air traffic
controllers (ATCOs). This is a worldwide phenomenon, but
Almost the entire emphasis of the government in the past decade or more, under both the NDA and UPA dispensations, has been on privatisation of airlines and airports, and on deregulation of civilian aviation in general. As a result, air traffic has expanded exponentially, but air traffic infrastructure and safety measures have not kept pace, and scant attention has been paid to these by government authorities.
Delhi and Mumbai airports are both now under private management with foreign collaboration, an idea pushed through by the UPA government in the face of stiff opposition by Left parties, Airports Authority staff and many aviation experts all of whom argued that privatisation of terminal and city-side operations would not add any value to airport operations whose main problems lay in poor air-side infrastructure and air-traffic management.
both these airports handle more than 700 flights daily, but with barely
ATCOs each. In
most advanced countries, and in several developing nations, ATCOs are
considered a special type of air service provider like pilots, due to
unique and important roles and responsibilities of both, with distinct
conditions and remuneration patterns. The International Labour
holds that “ATCOs... have problems which are unique to their
their concern with safety could broadly be compared with that of
fact in many European countries, ATCOs operate under an entirely
organisation as in the
problem of inadequate numbers of ATCOs, the managerial preference for
overtime even at the cost of ATCO fatigue rather than bear the costs of
recruiting and training additional ATCOs is undoubtedly a worldwide
But it has assumed enormous proportions in
Added to this is the problem of inadequate infrastructure and delays in or failure to upgrade technologies. Air Surface Movement Ground Control Systems should have been procured and installed at all major airports but are currently available only in Delhi and Mumbai, with fog-prone Kolkata having been sanctioned one after a near collision in January this year involving an aircraft aborting landing a mere 300 feet above ground after spotting a cargo plane on the runway! It is another matter that even with this system in place the Mumbai ATC did not notice both aircraft moving towards the intersection point last month! While the AAI is starved of funds and approvals are delayed, the civilian aviation ministry is mostly busy with supporting private airport operators and addressing their concerns on building convention centres and shopping malls to increase their profitability!
Lahoti heading the Inquiry Commission into the mid-air collision over
is ironic that these conclusions should have been reached by an
person whereas civil aviation authorities have continued to ignore what
everyone in the face. Recognising the special function of ATCOs, the
recommends that “trade unions and/or the appropriate organisation
should be consulted” on all issues relating to ATCOs working conditions
remuneration. In contrast in
just the ATC but the entire system of air traffic management in
INDEPENDENT SAFETY &
independent Regulatory Authority for civilian aviation has been a
demand, keeping in mind the experience of other countries. The
On top of it all, DGCA is also tasked with conducting accident investigations! There is clearly a clash of interests involved here since DGCA signs off on aircraft maintenance and repairs, oversees air services, advises AAI on safety issues and also reports to the minister of civil aviation. How then can one reasonably expect it to conduct accident or near-miss investigations properly, identify responsibility, and also make systemic recommendations which could go against or put pressure on any of its “client” organisations?
still do not know who was responsible for the near-miss in Mumbai
president’s helicopter fleet in February this year. Initial
pointed to “negligence”, by who is not clear, and a final report is not
available. In fact, 70 cases of airfield accidents all over
is high time an independent Air Safety Agency is created in
veteran international ATCO (not from