The crash of an Air India Express plane at Kozhikode airport, which has claimed at least 18 lives and left dozens more in critical condition, has once again highlighted questions about safety at several Indian airports.
- Kozhikode airport is what is called a “tabletop” airport, like Mangalore airport, where India’s last major air accident took place in 2010; another tabletop airport in Kerala is at Kannur.
- Tabletop airports are constructed by flattening the top of a hill, and are lifelines in places which have hilly or mountainous terrain.
- In Kozhikode, the airplane overshot both the runway and the safety area beyond the end of the runway, and fell off the end of the tabletop — causing it to break into two.
- It has previously been highlighted by safety experts that Kozhikode airport makes for a particularly dangerous landing, especially under rainy conditions and when the runway is wet. The pilot of the Kozhikode flight, a former air force pilot, made two previous attempts to land the plane, each time pulling out and going around.
- Several questions will need to be addressed in subsequent inquiries, and the corresponding action taken in Kozhikode and similar airports.
- The initial response of the authorities has been that the airport was within regulations. If this is so, the regulations themselves may need to be re-examined. For example, the additional space provided for safety at the edge of the airport — called the runway end safety area, or RESA — was well above international minimum requirements, at 240 metres.
- This extension took place as late as 2018, and also required — given the space constraints — a reduction in the length of the runway. This will have limited the airplanes capable of landing on the 2,750-metre long runway, although that length is technically rated for planes such as the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737800 so close to sea level.
- The relevant regulator, the Director General of Civil Aviation, had banned wide-body aircraft — which take longer to slow down, given their mass — from landing at Kozhikode. But clearly this RESA size, combined with the short runway, was nevertheless not enough, given the weather conditions.
- It has been reported that, although the Airports Authority of India (AAI) had sought to extend the runway by a further 800 metres, land acquisition in the area had proved to be a problem.
- The committee of inquiry following the 2010 Mangalore crash had said that an “engineered material arresting system”, or EMAS, a construction meant to slow the speed of airplanes that have gone beyond the runway, should be installed if the RESA is less than 240 metres.
- Yet the extension of the RESA at Kozhikode meant, as far as the AAI was concerned, that this requirement no longer held and no EMAS needed to be built.
- Again, there appears to be an attention to the letter of regulations but a violation of the spirit thereof. Indian aviation regulation must begin to build in greater safety margins, and not leave any wiggle room for airport and airfield regulators to play fast and loose with safety.