Stop the Buck; Clear the Muck

Posted on June 1, 2010 in Politics

Umang Joshi:

Nothing could be more devastating and gut -wrenching than a major plane crash. That is what exactly happened as tragedy struck India last Saturday when an Air India Express flight from Dubai overshot the runway at the Bajpe airport in Mangalore and plunged into a cliff thereby claiming 158 innocent lives and leaving behind a lot of unanswered questions. The plane was engulfed in huge flames as soon as it crashed into the forested gorge from the table top runway which is being described as one of the most trickiest runways in India.

The runway is located on the top of a plateau with either end stopping abruptly and dropping into deep gorges and hence the margin of error is virtually nil and any misjudgment while landing can prove fatal as what happened in this particular case. This is the country’s worst aviation disaster in over a decade which is a testimony to the fact that we have a fairly good safety record.Television images showed the plane had broken up, with smoke billowing from the main fuselage, as rescue workers tried their bit to douse the deadly flames.The rescue teams had to struggle down steep, wooded slopes to reach the plane and were shown carrying body parts away from the site which was heart- rending. Miraculously though, a handful of people managed to scramble from the burning wreckage and that’s what I call — ‘sheer luck and destiny’. But the larger question still remains the actual cause behind such a tragic incident and its too early to pass the buck onto the pilots who were navigating that plane.

The reason I say this is because both the pilots were highly experienced, one of them even having a whopping 10,000 hours of flying behind him. So lets not be preemptive and premature in our judgments and instead of jumping onto quick and haste conclusions one must wait till the DGCA is done with its proper inquiry after ascertaining all the facts. One thing though is amply clear and that’s the inherent vulnerability of that table top runway with steep sides leaving behind no margin of scope for any error.It seems as if the the booming Indian aviation industry is compromising the overall safety.Fuelled by a booming economy and burgeoning middle-class with a growing appetite for air travel, India’s aviation industry is one of the fastest growing in the world and Air India Express is one of many budget airlines established to cater for surging demand over the past decade. But as investigators sifted through the wreckage, questions were raised about the effectiveness of India’s aviation safety regime amid the rapid expansion. There is concern that infrastructure and safety systems are not keeping pace with the ballooning number of flights. This particular incident should awaken the authorities to the vulnerability of the airport. Caution was thrown to the winds and the aircraft became a flying coffin. Indian commercial pilots have always complained they are overworked, leading many people to ask whether pilot fatigue may have been a factor in this crash.Air travel these days is similar to travelling by state transport buses. Pilots fly continuously without adequate rest to meet commercial deadlines and this has an adverse impact on the overall safety front. The safety standards of Air India, the state-owned carrier that owns Air India Express, are hence bound to come in for scrutiny, for an airplane crash is quite a grave affair which cant be buried in the hatchet soon.

But, then, are we going to learn any lesson from the tragedy? Or will it be the same scenario — expressing shock, offering condolences to the victims’ families, and finding a few scapegoats after a routine enquiry by those who are ultimately answerable for the tragedy?Instead of pointing fingers at pilots, the weather and indulging in a nonsensical blame game the authorities should introspect and take corrective steps to prevent such accidents in future.The demand by the Indian Commercial Pilots Association that the government appoint a high-level committee to investigate the lapses in safety, fatigue prevention and training of pilots in Air India deserves due consideration. In the absence of any technical snag, the most probable reason for an accident is pilot fatigue. The pilots flying the Air India Express were experienced, the weather was fine at the time of landing and the airport, though a tabletop, was equipped with all navigational and instrument landing systems with a runway sufficient for a Boeing to land so the the tragedy is a wake-up call to the Aviation Ministry. Aircrafts are poorly maintained and serviced. Gone are those days when people looked forward to a royal style service on board. Today, a passenger should consider himself lucky if he reaches the destination safely.The Mangalore airport runway is one of the most dangerous runways in terms of length. That it never had the required safety margin to meet emergencies of such a magnitude is shocking. It is common people like us who end up paying for the miscalculations of the authorities.The skies are crowded with hovering aircraft and hence strict monitoring of air movements and control of human error are the immediate need of the hour if Mangalore-like disasters are to be avoided.

And finally a word of thought for our very own majestic media which seems to have lost all the sensitivities and now gains pleasure in sensationalizing news rather than depicting it the way it should be. What was even more tragic than the plane crash was the attitude of our very own -the majestic television news channels. In the game of one-upmanship, every channel seemed to have barged into the trauma care units to interview the survivors. News channels started airing statements of victims and described them as breaking news. Another channel aired yet another survivor making statements while a doctor examined him. Instead of consoling and empathising with the survivors, the media looked interested in reporting as much as they could from them rather than leaving them alone so as to recover from this disaster It showed total disregard to the feelings of those people and was merely interested in eliciting their views in that time of shock and disbelief. The personal space is shrinking way too fast and we ought to do something about this before the situation goes overboard.

The writer is a correspondent of Youth Ki Awaaz.