Big questions on safety, pilot training after 5 Indian planes veer off runway in 3 days

The aircraft involved are SpiceJet and Air India Express. Half the incidents occurred in wet weather, for which airlines have to ensure their pilots undergo specific training.

New Delhi: When the Pune-Kolkata SpiceJet aircraft, SG-275, veered off the runway at the Kolkata airport Tuesday, it was the fifth such instance in just 72 hours, between 30 June and 2 July.

It was also the sixth such incident of an Indian airline going off the runway in the last three months — the first of this spate of accidents occurred on 29 April, when a SpiceJet aircraft, SG-946, a Boeing 737-800 headed from Delhi to Shirdi, overshot the runway upon landing.

While there have been no casualties due to the mishaps, the sheer frequency of these accidents has raised questions on safety standards, particularly within SpiceJet, and on pilot training.

Of the six incidents, four aircraft belonged to SpiceJet, while the other two are Air India Express (AIE) planes.

ThePrint reached SpiceJet spokesperson Tushar Srivastava for a response on the incidents but he refused to comment while the CEO of Air India Express was unavailable for comment.

The focus on pilot training has arisen as at least half of the incidents, including the latest one in Kolkata, occurred in wet weather, for which, airlines have to ensure that their pilots undergo the mandatory monsoon-related ALAR (Approach and Landing Accident Reduction) training. ThePrint takes a look at the spate of runway mishaps and the questions they have raised.

The Shirdi overrun, 29 April

The SpiceJet Boeing 737-800 that overshot the runway at Shirdi on 29 April had 164 people on board; all of them were safe. The aircraft overshot the runway by at least 50 m and came to a stop with all its gear on soft ground. The aircraft, which was headed from Delhi, was towed back to the apron.

The Mangalore mishap, 30 June

An Air India Express Boeing 737-800, Flight IX-384, on 30 June veered straight off the runway at Mangalore airport and came to a stop just ahead of the end of the runway after its nose gear went over a drainage ditch. All 181 people on board the aircraft, which had made its way from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, disembarked safely through the mobile stairs. The aircraft received minor damage.

SpiceJet on soft ground in Surat, 30 June

A SpiceJet De Havilland Dash 8-400, a smaller aircraft ferrying 43 passengers and four crew members from Bhopal to Surat, significantly overran the runway at Surat on 30 June. The aircraft, Flight SG-3722, came to a stop on soft ground just short and to the right of the localiser antenna, about 270 m past the end of the runway.

The landing occurred during a heavy downpour. The passengers disembarked through the aircraft’s stairs; there were no injuries. The airport was closed overnight while the aircraft sustained minor damage.

Kozhikode ‘hard’ landing, 1 July

An Air India Express Boeing 737-800, Flight IX-382, landed hard at the Kozhikode airport on 1 July, with its tail making contact with the runway before it rolled on without further incident and taxied to the apron. There were no injuries.

The flight was headed from Dammam in Saudi Arabia and had 180 people on board. The aircraft remained on the ground for about six-and-a-half hours and then returned to service.

SpiceJet overshoots runway in Mumbai, 1 July

This is yet another instance of a SpiceJet aircraft overshooting the runway in wet weather. A SpiceJet Boeing 737-800, Flight SG-6237, on its way from Jaipur ran off the rain-slickened runway 27 at the Mumbai International Airport on 1 July forcing the closure of the main runway. Passengers were deplaned normally. There was no injury to either the passengers or the crew.

No respite for SpiceJet in Kolkata, 2 July

The latest runway incident involving SpiceJet came Tuesday when SG-275 from Pune to Kolkata landed on runway 19L and veered off towards the right due to heavy rain. Pilots took corrective action immediately to get the aircraft onto the centre line but four-runway edge lights were damaged. Nobody was injured in the incident.

DGCA should review safety standards: Experts

The series of runway incidents have prompted experts to raise questions on the training of pilots and safety standards being maintained by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), the country’s aviation watchdog.

“This points to very poor training and safety standards at SpiceJet and AIE,” said Captain Mohan Ranganathan, an aviation safety consultant and a former instructor of the Boeing 737 specialising in wet runway operations training.

“It also points to DGCA turning a blind eye to serious safety issues. The DGCA is being a facilitator for airlines and not a regulator.”

Ranganathan added that the DGCA should have grounded SpiceJet and conducted an independent safety audit by bringing in an outside agency. “The airlines appear to have ignored the mandatory monsoon-related ALAR training. The spate of incidents point to very serious failure,” he said.

“If the ministry of civil aviation and the DGCA care about passenger lives, they should ground the airlines that are incapable of safe operations during the monsoons.”

DGCA officials did not respond to the queries sent by The Print. This report will be updated when they do.

Sudhakara Reddy, president of the Air Passengers Association of India, wondered if airlines are forgoing safety to keep their aircraft in the air. “The latest is the fifth such incident in the last five days. Is it because of a rush to train pilots and keep the fleet in the sky without rest or proper training?” he asked

Another aviation expert, Mark Martin, said the “only solution” to the runway incidents was better crew training.

“Several factors are involved in such incidents — the inability to brake, unstable approach and the weather,” he said. “There is a lot of pressure on a 70-tonne aircraft flying at a speed of 300 km per hour while landing. The only solution is better crew training. It is definitely troublesome and alarming.”


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