The Kozhikode air crash shows that there can be no compromise on airport infrastructure
The tragic crash of an Air India Express ‘Vande Bharat’ relief flight in Kozhikode, in which 18 people, including two crew members, lost their lives and many were left severely injured, is a forceful reminder that there are no acceptable risks in aviation. Although an even bigger disaster was averted by the absence of fire in the aircraft, the crash snuffed out the lives of many returning home from Dubai after a long, traumatic separation from loved ones in the pandemic. Many Indians could not quickly return home from countries where they were employed, studying or travelling, although they desperately sought flights back home since March. For those who took that long-awaited trip on August 7, it ended in disaster. There are clear pointers to the dangerous nature of flight operations at Kozhikode airport in the midst of a strong monsoon, even with the availability of an instrument landing system for the “tabletop” runway carved into undulating terrain. There are problems with visibility, a far shorter safety area at the runway end than optimal, and absence of arrester systems that could stop an overshooting plane from falling off the edge, as it happened with this aircraft. Which of these factors, along with the monsoon impact, led to the disaster will become clear with a professional investigation. The Civil Aviation Ministry should make a full disclosure on the technical evidence gathered, the integrity of which will be scrutinised by safety organisations worldwide.
Apparently anxious to project an image of normalcy, the Ministry allowed the airport to restart flights in a day, while the accident cause was yet to be ascertained. If rainy conditions existed during the landing, as Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri has said, these may persist during the rest of the monsoon. Each flight must, therefore, be considered for a potential diversion to a safe airport nearby in bad weather. Significantly, the admission by the DGCA that the key recommendation of runway extension at Kozhikode made almost a decade ago was not possible due to land acquisition issues — although the facility could still support wide-bodied aircraft — strengthens the view that corners may have been cut on safety. The instance of an Air India Express plane suffering a tail strike in the same airport last year should have led to a full assessment, following up on the recommendations made after the 2010 crash in Mangaluru. Since the visible cause of Friday’s crash was an overshoot, the runway continues to pose a threat. Bad meteorological conditions such as rain and wind, and runway surface problems such as stagnation of water or rubber deposits that contribute to skidding endanger passengers and crew. Every air safety incident diminishes India’s reputation. The Kozhikode crash should lead to a fresh review of all risky airports. Transparent remedial action must be taken immediately.