May 28, 2010
By Frances Fiorino, Neelam Mathews
Washington, New Delhi
The Air India Express accident that took the lives of 158 people raises concerns about Indian airlines and underlines the need to make runways safer as traffic grows in fast-developing aviation regions.
The May 22 accident is classified as the overrun type of runway excursion, which is defined as what happens when an aircraft either departs the end or the side of a runway surface during takeoff or landing in the Flight Safety Foundation’s Runway Safety Initiative (RSI) study. When an aircraft leaves the side of a runway, it is sometimes called a “veer-off,” and when it travels past a runway end, it is called an “overrun.” The study, launched in late 2006 and published in 2009, aimed to identify high-risk areas and find ways to reduce runway hazards.
India’s aviation authorities provided preliminary details about the accident. At about 6:00 a.m. (local time) on May 22, Air India Express Boeing 737-800, en route from Dubai, was cleared to land at Mangalore-Bajpe International Airport’s 8,000-ft. Runway 24.
Mangalore is called the “tabletop” airport because it sits on a hilltop surrounded by deep gorges. It also has a reputation for being a difficult landing spot in bad weather. According to initial reports, the winds were calm, visibility was 6 km. (3.7 mi.), and it was not raining at the time air traffic control had cleared Flight 812 for the ILS Runway 24 approach. Indications are that the pilot, who had logged more than 10,000 hr. of flight time, had reported the aircraft was established on the approach, but that controllers advised pilots not to land—although the reports do not indicate a reason for the wave-off.
The 737 landed, overran the runway, slid into a ravine and burst into flames, killing 158 of the 166 on board. The aircraft, delivered to Air India in January 2008, was destroyed.
India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) is leading the investigation, with help from an NTSB team that includes technical advisers from the FAA and Boeing.
Flight 812 also raises doubts about the adequacy of India’s regulatory standards, infrastructure and staffing to keep up with the rapid growth of its aviation industry.
Addressing those concerns, DGCA officials noted that in April, passenger traffic increased 26%, with India’s eight domestic carriers transporting 4.18 million people, compared with 3.31 million during the same 2009 period.
About 3,500 flights—up from 1,900 in 2005—operate daily in Indian airspace, and the domestic fleet increased to 400 from 160 aircraft in 2005. The number of aviation mishaps since 2005 also increased, to 1,132 from 806.
According to Flight Safety Foundation President William Voss, the Indian government has been on the “right track” and taken proactive steps to correct serious safety shortfalls that were detected a few years ago.
In a 2006 safety audit, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) faulted India’s “technical personnel qualification and training.” And in March 2009, system deficiencies left the DGCA faced with losing its Category 1 status—which it has held since 1997—under the FAA’s International Safety Assessment program. (A Category 1 ranking means a nation’s civil aviation authority meets ICAO standards; Category 2 means it does not.) But the DGCA addressed these issues. It now has 32 full-time flight operations inspectors on staff, compared with four in March 2009. The authority continues to work closely with the FAA each month to evaluate and correct any deficiencies that arise.
Previous notable overrun events include the July 17, 2007, accident in which a TAM Airbus A320 landed long at Sao Paulo, Brazil, Congonhas International Airport, killing 199 people and causing serious injuries to 11 others on board.
The RSI study determined that commercial transports were involved in 1,429 total accidents in the 14-year study period. Of that total, 431 were runway-related, with 41 of them fatal events. And 417, or 97%, of the accidents involved excursions—which occurred at a rate of 29.8 per year and accounted for 83% (or 34) of the fatal accidents in which 712 people died.
The RSI team outlined the most common risk factors in landing excursions: Failure to recognize the need for, and to execute, a go-around is the major cause of runway excursions during landings. And flying a stabilized approach is the main way to mitigate the risk of a runway excursion, notes the study.
The RSI study also recommends that air crews use training tools to raise awareness of runway hazards. In late June, the Flight Safety Foundation is expected to issue an update of its Approach and Landing Accident Reduction (ALAR) tool. Ironically, just 10 days prior to the Air India Express crash, India’s DGCA issued an order mandating that crews take ALAR training to prepare them for operations during the monsoon season, says Voss.
To view the RSI study and training tool, go to: “Current safety initiatives” at www.flightsafety.org