While it is easy to be wise after the event, questions about the operation of flights to Kozhikode airport during monsoons must be raised in view of the hypotheses offered by aviation experts. The table top runway is said to be dangerous, and especially so during rains, and it is reported that the Civil Aviation Safety Advisory Council had issued warnings about both Mangalore ~ where a crash had killed 158 people a decade ago ~ and Kozhikode a decade ago.
The aircraft, a Boeing 737-800 commissioned in 2006, was not brand new but it was also not old. While age of aircraft is determined by the number of pressurization cycles they go through, and not years, aircraft of this type are said to be good for use for about 30 years. Based at Kozhikode, the aircraft had operated to Dubai on 5 August and to Abu Dhabi on 6 August, from where it had returned at about 6 p.m. that day.
It left Kozhikode for Dubai shortly after 10 a.m. on 7 August and would have been subjected to maintenance checks overnight. The commander of the flight was vastly experienced, having served both in the Air Force and in commercial aviation. In other words, there was no ostensible reason to believe that either the craft or the pilot was less than competent.
While the inquiry into the crash will disclose the reasons for the crash, survivor testimonies tell us that the pilot was aware of the risks associated with landing in the rain, and had aborted twice before deciding to put down his wheels. On the face of it, therefore, the risk associated with landing on a table-top runway (one located on the top of a hill or a plateau with one or both ends adjacent to a precipice) especially in blinding rain, suggests itself as a likely reason for the crash.
Until they know better, authorities must consider suspending operations at airports such as Kozhikode at least during the monsoons. Flights can be diverted to either Kochi or Coimbatore, both about 4 hours’ drive from Kozhikode, an inconvenience that passengers would gladly accept. Friday’s mishap has also blighted the Government’s Vande Bharat mission, touted as the largest operation ever mounted to bring back stranded Indians from overseas.
Nearly one million Indians have so far returned home in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic and more than 700 such flights are scheduled this month, operated by Air India, Air India Express, SpiceJet and Indigo airlines. The government must know that commercial pilots are required to undergo mandatory tests periodically. Because of the epidemic, such tests have been suspended for now, giving rise to the possibility of a pilot who is unfit to fly taking to the skies.
Historically, pilot fatigue is a major reason for mishaps and the stress of flying with a virus potentially lurking behind the cockpit door must be factored in. Thirdly, with breathalyser tests having been suspended since March, the possibility of a pilot rendering himself less than fit before entering the cockpit cannot be ruled out.