As I sit down to write, news reports are highlighting a near disaster in India involving an Air India Express flight carrying 130 passengers and 6 crewmembers in a Boeing 737 that hit a brick airport boundary wall and then—incredibly—kept going for more than four hours, even after being informed by airport authorities of the collision. Like many disasters and near disasters, this event raises questions beyond the aeronautical judgment of these particular pilots. And, yes, a full investigation is needed to determine exactly what happened and why. But it’s not too early for the U.S. to monitor this event for its implications for India’s ability to oversee the safety of its airlines.
I’ve written before on my concerns about the FAA’s safety ratings of foreign countries; India in particular. What triggered my concern in 2012 were media reports that Air India pilots and those at other Indian airlines were not getting paid. Clearly, multiple major airlines not paying their pilots was a sign of their significant financial distress that should have been worrisome to India’s civil aviation regulator, known as the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGAC). Yet, the situation had been ongoing for months and months and the airlines kept on flying with their pilots unpaid or not regularly paid. Certainly, the situation also should have been a concern for the FAA, which rates whether countries whose airlines fly into the U.S. or want to fly into the U.S. meet the standards established by the International Civil Aviation Organization. (The FAA does not rate foreign airlines but their government’s ability to perform safety oversight functions under ICAO.)
As far as I could figure out, the failure to pay pilots did not trigger an FAA review of India’s Category 1 rating, although I believe it should have. However, a 2012 ICAO audit that identified a number of safety deficiencies did. The FAA thereafter conducted its own safety audit and, in 2014, downgraded India to a Category 2 based on its findings that “India’s civil aviation safety oversight regime does not currently comply with the international safety standards set by ICAO.” With a Category 2 rating, India’s carriers could continue existing service to the U.S. but could not establish new service. Surprisingly enough, in just over a year, the FAA announced that it had upgraded India once again to Category 1, albeit with conditions.
With FAA inspectors reportedly once again mulling India’s ability to oversee its air transport system, the FAA should seriously consider what Air India’s near disaster says about the country’s ability to enforce international safety standards. While a single incident may not normally implicate a country’s oversight ability, the situation with Air India is different in a number of respects.
First, here is what various Indian and foreign media reported about the incident. On October 12, an Air India Express flight in a Boeing 737 took off from Tiruchirappalli International Airport in Tamil Nadu, on the southern tip of India en route to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. (This is a flight of almost 2,000 miles, much of it over the Indian Ocean.) On takeoff, the Boeing 737 hit a localizer antenna and then a brick boundary wall. The airport director stated, “We informed the pilot about the hit. The pilot said nothing was wrong with the plane as the systems were functioning normally. But we found some parts of the plane, like an antenna, on the ground.” I assume this sends chills down your spine, too.
Two hours into the flight, the airline apparently finally got cold feet and turned the aircraft back to India for an unscheduled landing in Mumbai—four hours after takeoff. Photos of the aircraft on social media showed a gash in the belly, and the landing gear had fencing wrapped around it.
I find it inconceivable that the crew was not aware that it had hit a brick wall even though they may not have known the extent of the damage. Of course, it’s not knowing the extent of the damage that should have driven their decision-making. And, if it’s true that the crew relied on their cockpit instruments in deciding to continue the flight, they clearly should have known that those instruments would not necessarily give them a complete picture of the potential damage. There could have been damage to the tires, the hydraulic brake lines, the landing gear retraction and extension system; any of which could significantly affect the safety of flight but not show up on the flight deck. Once the aircraft hit an object, the crew would also not know if any other areas of the aircraft were affected, including flight controls, or whether even minor structural damage would propagate and become catastrophic with continued flight.
It’s not just the flight crew that bears blamey here, although they have primary responsibility. It seems hard to believe that no one at the airline was aware of this situation after the airport authority notified the crew. It’s certainly disturbing that it took two hours for the crew, the airline or someone in the Indian government to come to their senses and turn the aircraft back.
While this event would be an indictment of the safety culture of any airline anywhere in the world, because of the relationship between Air India Express, Air India and the Indian civil aviation authorities, the handling of the event, in my opinion, implicates the competence of India’s aviation safety oversight. According to its website, Air India Express is an international low-cost carrier headquartered in Kochi, India, and a wholly owned subsidiary of Air India. Two of the airline’s directors are high-ranking officials of India’s Civil Aviation Ministry, as are two directors of the parent company, Air India. Air India is not a private airline but, in fact, a government-owned corporation. With high-level Civil Aviation Ministry officials on the Board of Directors of both the parent and subsidiary airlines, it seems to me that the failings of Air India Express are likely not just “typical” airline failings but also fairly attributable to failings of the Indian government in its oversight responsibilities.
It seems even the Indian government has concerns. According to an Indian news website, the Civil Aviation Minister tweeted, “In a recent review on airline safety, I have ordered to put in place a third-party professional organization to look into various safety aspects @airindia.” I’m not sure what “third party professionals” means but it seems to me to indicate a lack of trust in the ability of the DGAC to perform its functions.
In any event, the reasons why the FAA began international inspections of foreign governments’ airline safety oversight capabilities remains as necessary today as they were in the wake of the Avianca Airlines disaster that led to these audits. U.S. travelers should have confidence that foreign airlines operating in and out of the U.S. have proper safety oversight by their home governments. I don’t think U.S travelers should have that confidence in either the Indian government's oversight of its airlines or the FAA’s handling of the international audit program.