Why Air India Express Plane Crash Is A Wake-Up Call To Reform DGCA

The DG should ideally tender a public apology for ‘irresponsible’ commentary made on the Kozhikode plane crash. 

Updated
Opinion
9 min read
Image of Air India Express plane crash at Kozhikode and DGCA logo, used for representational purposes.
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In a terrible tragedy, Air India Express Flight IX-1344 from Dubai to Calicut experienced a runway excursion and crashed after landing at about 1941h IST on 7 August 2020. As per official reports, at least 18 of the 190 onboard, including both pilots, perished in the crash while over 120 have sustained injuries.

Air India has been at the forefront of repatriation flights launched by the Indian government under ‘Vande Bharat Mission’. These flights are a matter of pride — it is part of a national mission to get every Indian home. Every airline would like to fly them. But for unknown reasons, there are nominations in favour of the national carrier (Air India) and its ‘step-child’ (Air India Express).

Site of Kozhikode plane crash.
Site of Kozhikode plane crash.
(Photo: Twitter /@Rafiakhatun8) 

These are unprecedented times for aviation. The bottom has literally caved-in for commercial aviation with a collapse in demand (70-80 percent), lockdowns, quarantine requirements, and a general fear of infection. Business and leisure travel is all but dead. All airlines have either laid off employees en masse or instituted deep pay cuts. Against this backdrop, airline crew, particularly from Air India, have been spearheading the repatriation flights.

Why India Should Not ‘Emulate’ Pakistan In Aviation Matters

With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging unabated, 2020 is clearly one of the worst years for aviation globally. There have been two major commercial airline crashes in the South Asia region after the lockdown. The Air India Express IX-1344 crash comes a little over two and half months after Pakistan International Airlines flight PK-8303 from Lahore to Karachi, an Airbus A320, crashed near Karachi airport at about 14:39 hours on 22 May 2020. Weather was reportedly not a factor in PK-8303 crash.

India really doesn’t need to emulate our western neighbour in matters aviation. Yet, we persist.

In the wake of the PK-8303 crash, there were many premature conjectures on ‘why’ and ‘how’. Many irresponsible comments were made. We should have learnt something from that.

India — as a responsible member of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and one of the leading economies of the world — should be the regional benchmark for aviation safety and efficiency.

But the latest crash exposes how far we are from that milestone, given the kind of organisation and systems we have in place for civil aviation.

Snapshot
  • India — as a responsible member of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and one of the leading economies of the world — should be the regional benchmark for aviation safety and efficiency.
  • Globally, it is considered poor form, if not entirely inappropriate and unethical, to pass judgement on any accident till the facts are established through a scientific inquiry.
  • Why then should the head of Indian aviation regulator DGCA appear on television in the aftermath of IX-1344 crash, only to cast aspersions on the pilots who are no longer around to defend themselves?
  • Avoiding speculation is fundamental to every accident investigation.
  • It is also legal and binding, especially on government agencies like DGCA and AAIB.

Why Passing Judgement On Any Accident Before Scientific Enquiry Is Unethical

Globally, it is considered poor form, if not entirely inappropriate and unethical, to pass judgement on any accident till the facts are established through a scientific inquiry. For example, in the United States, only an authorised member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will make any public comment, a very limited one, or none at all, in the difficult moments / days following a crash. This is the norm worldwide.

Site of Kozhikode plane crash.
Site of Kozhikode plane crash.
(Photo: Twiter / @breakingavnews) 

But in India, ‘sources’, ‘aviation experts’, bureaucrats, and ill-informed ministers, start singing like a canary hours after any accident. Understandably, in the wake of any air crash, every Tom, Dick and Harinder would want to know what happened. An insensitive and TRP-hungry media enters this feeding frenzy. All kinds of experts start waxing eloquent. Speculation runs riot. Why are we ok with this? Should the DGCA reign them in? We are far from it, as latest developments indicate.

Why DGCA Head Should Not Cast Aspersions On Deceased Pilots Who Can’t Defend Themselves

India really has no equivalent of the NTSB. There is the Air Accident Investigation Board (AAIB) under Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA). We are yet to hear from them. Even a casual Google search for the AAIB website returns an ‘unsafe’ callout. Their website is not even ‘https’ or ‘safe’. This is the organisation that will delve into air accidents in India and make recommendations to prevent recurrence. Can any Indian recall a single AAIB member who made significant contributions to flight safety at national or international level? What is the span and depth of our accident investigation system that does not make a single meaningful contribution to the cause of aviation safety? Who are the experts this system chooses?

All air accident reports in India carry this foreword (excerpted from a recent crash report):

“The investigation is conducted not to apportion blame or to assess individual or collective responsibility. The sole objective is to draw lessons from this accident which may help in preventing such accidents in future.”

Why then should the head of Indian aviation regulator DGCA appear on television in the aftermath of IX-1344 crash, only to cast aspersions on the pilots who are no longer around to defend themselves?

Avoiding Speculation Is Fundamental To Every Accident Probe

Even before the Combined Voice and Flight Data Recorder (CVFDR) was decoded, or the families handed over the bodies, both pilots (dead) were put in the dock by none other than the prima donna of DGCA — Mr Arun Kumar, the DG himself. This is shambolic, and doesn’t happen in any self-respecting country. An aviation specialist from sub-Saharan Africa can take a masterclass for our regulator in accident investigation, if not in media management — that’s what we have become while our eyes focussed on ‘lowest fares’ and ‘UDAN’ (Udey desh ka aam nagrik, or “flying for the common man”).

Site of Kozhikode plane crash.
Site of Kozhikode plane crash.
(Photo: Twiter / @breakingavnews) 
Avoiding speculation is fundamental to every accident investigation. It is also legal and binding, especially on government agencies like DGCA and AAIB.

They are vested with the responsibility of ensuring compliance to international conventions and agreements such as ICAO Annex 13 (blatantly breached in the DG’s premature statements to media).

During a site visit after the IX-1344 crash, Indian aviation minister Mr Hardeep Singh Puri specifically requested people not to speculate.

Yet, his key functionary, the DG himself, fielding leading questions from an equally culpable, sensation-seeking media, was led by the nose into areas he is meant to protect from ambulance-chasers.

“It looks like a bad judgement call by the pilot,” the DG of DGCA said.

Why Preliminary Judgement Of Accident Can Be Damaging

As the DG, Arun Kumar probably has access to much more data than whatever ‘WhatsApp University’ provides ordinary citizens. Even so, what the interview calls ‘preliminary assessment’ is at best ‘raw data’; it is not processed, analysed or examined by any authorised agency as per accident investigation protocols. It would be akin to judging the character of a person based on a social media DP (display picture). The difference lies in the damage it does to further process; the cost in human lives; and, the future of aviation safety in India.

Instrument Flight Rule (IFR) flight plans — standard for flights like IX-1344 — cater to two approaches before a mandatory diversion, a missed approach at primary diversion, and, if required, a flight to secondary diversion, a missed approach there and then some. There are visibility, runway visual range (RVR, equipment for which is not available at Calicut airport), technical distances and tailwind limits laid down for airfields and specific type of aircraft.

The DG’s irresponsible statement steered clear of all this and, instead, chose to apportion blame on ‘bad judgement’ on the part of the crew.

This goes against every tenet of ICAO Annex 13 and accident investigation. He should certainly tender a public apology if not resign.

Site of Kozhikode plane crash.
Site of Kozhikode plane crash.
(Photo: Twiter / @breakingavnews) 

All the Hype Around ‘Why the Pilot Did Not Divert’ Could Be Speculatory

Flight crew spend hours in the box (simulator) and in air, training for the kind of situation that obtained at Calicut during landing on the fateful day. It is neither unique nor ‘NO GO’. The decision to make a direct approach within tailwind limitations specific to type, IFR procedures for duty runway, attempt an approach, go around at DH to make another approach – all fall within the ambit called ‘Captain’s decision’. They wear four stripes for a reason.

The Southwest Monsoon was in full fury when IX-1344 left India for Dubai (not known when) and arrived Calicut with repatriated passengers. No other flight crew were killed or injured in the crash, which indicates that there were no ‘deadheading’ crew onboard. The weather at Calicut was seasonal: arguably tough, but not out of envelope for a modern aircraft like the B737-800 (the METAR or weather report during landing event is relevant). Actual weather may differ. The crew take all this into account hundreds of miles from destination, and plan / revise diversion accordingly.

At the helm of IX-1344 was an experienced captain — Capt Deepak Vasant Sathe — a former IAF test pilot.
At the helm of IX-1344 was an experienced captain — Capt Deepak Vasant Sathe — a former IAF test pilot.
(Photo: Twitter)
At the helm of IX-1344 was an experienced captain — Capt Deepak Vasant Sathe — a former IAF test pilot with many thousands of hours experience across the civil-military spectrum.

‘Missed approach’ executed on first attempt could mean the crew did not acquire the desired visual references at ‘decision height/altitude (DH/DA)’ to continue the landing approach. If they decided to come back for a second approach, well, that’s standard operating procedure, not some bizarre breakdown. Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) under which the flight was operated caters to two missed approaches before diversion is invoked. So all the hype around ‘why the pilot did not divert’ could well be speculatory.

DG’s Testimony to Media May Bias Investigation

Also spare a thought – what the pandemic and associated rules can do to a busload of weary passengers returning home on an expatriation flight. Would this have weighed on the mind of Capt Sathe as he formulated his arrival plan for Calicut and likelihood of diversion? I would say yes.

That the pilots are dead and no longer around to defend themselves may be ‘convenient’ for many of the higher-ups; but the DG’s testimony to the media is likely to bias the subsequent investigation that follows.

He has set the stage for a skewed investigation, and the ‘cover-up’ that may eventually follow. This is neither unprecedented nor surprising in Indian aviation. Even in the military, there are several anecdotes where people in authority made premature assessments based on circumstantial evidence, ‘gut feeling’, ‘in my time’ recalls, or ‘confirmation bias’. Those who presided over courts of inquiry that followed inevitably sniffed the air waves for ‘what does the boss want?’, rather than ‘what does available evidence indicate?’

Paying last respects to the deceased.
Paying last respects to the deceased.
(Photo: Twitter / @captjasdeep) 

In the case of IX-1344 crash and the statements that followed, one thing becomes evident: the DG either does not understand, or he simply doesn’t care for due diligence in air accident investigation. Use of unprofessional terms like ‘one side of the runway’ or ‘another side of runway’ without detailing the instrument runway(s), category of ILS available (only Category 1 for Calicut), the type of approach procedure involved versus prevailing conditions, etc only displays an abject lack of aviation knowledge that’s shielded behind the iron-clad PPE of authority.

Who Are The Losers In This ‘Game’? Passengers And Their Families

The DGCA is responsible for ensuring aviation safety. Instead, that fence is eating the crop. Countries with a genuine interest in advancing aviation for the common man (aam aadmi) will never conduct themselves in a public discourse this way.

The only losers in this deadly game of ‘those who mind, don’t matter; those who matter, don’t mind’ are fare-paying passengers and their families, who are thrown under the (air)bus – each and every time.

The DG should certainly tender a public apology or resignation for irresponsible commentary made on IX-1344 crash. Sadly folks, as a seasoned aviation watcher in India, I can tell you – neither of that will happen. Life will go on. Because it doesn’t matter. That’s the system we have at hand. I will be happy to be proven wrong.

(Capt KP Sanjeev Kumar is a former navy test pilot and blogs at www.kaypius.com. He can be reached at @realkaypius. He has flown over 24 types of fixed and rotary wing aircraft and holds a dual ATP rating on the Bell 412 and AW139 helicopters. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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