Crash Raises Issue of India’s Aviation Oversight

MUMBAI, India — An Air India flight that crashed after landing in southern India on Saturday killed 158 people and raised questions about India’s oversight of a rapidly growing aviation industry.

The immediate cause of the accident appeared to be pilot error: the Boeing 737 overshot the hilltop runway in Mangalore, one of India’s trickiest airports, on the southwestern coast.

But pilots and safety experts said the error may have been compounded by weaknesses in India’s safety inspection regime, inadequate training and an airport that critics said should never have been built in such a difficult spot.

“This incident should not have happened,” said Kapil Kaul, who heads the Indian and Middle East arm of the Center for Asian Pacific Aviation, a consulting firm.

Aviation officials said the pilot missed the landing threshold, a critical section of the runway at airports where runways are short because of hilly terrain. The plane, arriving from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, then veered off the runway and struck a concrete navigational aid, Aviation Minister Praful Patel said at a news conference at the airport. “The wing fell off and the aircraft plunged into the valley,” he said.

Only 8 of the 160 passengers and 6 crew members survived, according to the airline, which is owned and operated by the Indian government.

“As soon as we landed, the tire burst,” one of the survivors told a local television crew from his hospital bed. “Within three seconds there was a fire blast. The inside was filled with smoke.” He said he escaped through a crack in the fuselage.

The accident focused attention on India’s booming but troubled aviation industry, one that reflects the contradictions of a nation with one of the world’s fastest-growing economies but where electricity is irregular and clean water scarce, and many people struggle to survive on less than a dollar a day.

Start-up commercial airlines have grown exponentially here in recent years. The number of domestic air passengers has tripled in the last five years, and the number of international passengers traveling to and from the country has doubled.

But infrastructure and safety have not kept pace, Mr. Kaul said. Industry and government must make a “quantum leap” to catch up on safety and training, he said.

Many airlines, including Air India, are losing hundreds of millions of dollars. In New Delhi, where the government is building a new 42-acre terminal, power failures sometimes shut down runway lights and air traffic control equipment.

Although India has had few major accidents in recent years — the last major crash was in 2000 — the number of near collisions and other safety problems has been increasing. Last year, for instance, there were three near-miss collisions at the airport in Mumbai, India’s commercial capital. In New Delhi, several people were killed in 2008 by vehicles on the tarmac.

Mangalore, in the Western Ghats, or hills, region, has other limitations imposed by geography. Just a week ago, Mr. Patel, the aviation minister, inaugurated a new terminal there, promising that work to extend the runway would start soon.

On Saturday, he denied that poor planning was a factor in the accident. He said that an older runway at the airport was “even smaller,” and that there had been no accidents on it.

The newer runway, while shorter than those in other major Indian airports, is more than adequate for landing a Boeing 737, aviation experts said.

But critics said it was neither long enough nor wide enough to allow room for such a large jet to compensate for error. Environment Support Group, one of several groups that sued twice to stop the airport’s expansion, said the new runway did not comply with existing Indian laws or international standards.

The lawsuits also said the site was unsuitable for heavy commercial traffic because it was on a plateau, surrounded by industrial smokestacks and garbage dumps that attracted birds, and it would be impossible for emergency crews to reach airplanes that crashed off the plateau quickly enough to rescue passengers.

The High Court dismissed the suits, and the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal in 2003.

The crash on Saturday, the Environment Support Group said in a statement, was “no accident, but a direct result of the series of deliberate failures of officials and key decision makers.”

But it remained unclear to what extent the accident may have been related to the wider problems across India’s aviation industry.

“This particular incident appears like a pilot error, and therefore it can happen anywhere,” said Sanat Kaul, a former aviation official who also once was on Air India’s board of directors. “Aviation safety is a bigger issue, and it shouldn’t be mixed up with a crash like this.”

The pilot, identified by The Associated Press as Zlatko Glusica, 55, a British citizen of Serbian origin, had landed the same aircraft in Mangalore 19 times before. He had 7,500 hours of flying experience, including 3,500 on this type of plane, Mr. Kaul said.

In addition, aviation officials said that the weather was clear. And the plane, a Boeing 737-800, was relatively new, having made its first flight in December 2007, according to the Aviation Safety Network. The 737-800 has been involved in five fatal accidents since entering service in 1998.

But investigators were still trying to determine what factors may have led to the error and caused it to be so devastating.

Experts say India has been lax in training aviation specialists, including air traffic controllers, maintenance engineers, pilots and regulators. Mr. Kaul estimates that just 10 percent of the industry staff members trained at local schools are qualified to do their jobs.

A 2006 audit by the International Civil Aviation Organization found hundreds of safety violations, and scored India worst on “technical personnel qualification and training.”

Inadequate pilot training has bedeviled the aviation industry, especially as it has expanded. Many airlines have hired foreign pilots because demand for air travel was outstripping the pace at which India could mint new pilots.

The industry employs about 600 expatriate pilots, but the government has ordered airlines to replace them with Indians by next summer, raising concerns about how the country will be able to produce enough qualified pilots so quickly.

India requires 200 hours of flying time and a high school diploma to co-pilot a passenger airline, compared with 250 hours required by the American Federal Aviation Administration. But many American airlines have minimum requirements of 1,000 hours or more, according to the F.A.A.'s web site.

Pilots here said that even that minimum was often skirted.

“A lot of people I graduated with, if I knew they were flying a plane I wouldn’t get on it,” said one new commercial pilot in New Delhi who did not want to be quoted by name criticizing his peers.

“Basically you pay the flight schools a lot of money” and in return they give you a license, he said. Trainee pilots sometimes pay others to fly the required hours on their behalf.

Pilots say that Air India has a reputation for paying well and not requiring long hours, but that the planes often have technical problems. The company’s engineers often find loopholes to clear planes to fly, said one commercial pilot who flies for another airline.

The aviation industry has also been plagued by a shortage of qualified safety inspectors.

In April 2008, the director general of civil aviation, Kanu Gohain, told the business newspaper Mint that India had just 3 inspectors for 10 commercial airlines and 600 planes, well below global norms.

While the government has since been able to raise the number — by hiring 14 permanent inspectors and borrowing another 14 from commercial airlines — Mr. Ranganathan says many are inadequately trained.

Moreover, lapsed inspections over the last few years have left a backlog that may take years to eliminate, he added.

“If you look from 2004 to 2009, they were just very few safety audits done,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s only in the last year that things were done. We are paying for that.”

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