The Mangalore air-crash has proved, if proof were needed, that Indian air space remains a dangerous place for air travelers. The first reports have indicated that the accident may have been caused by pilot error.
This is because pilot behaviour has been under investigation in a number of cases -- which could have led to accidents but fortunately didn't -- in recent months. The Directorate of Civil Aviation revealed in April that it was investigating 15 near misses -- incidents in which planes flew dangerously close to each other -- and several cases in which pilots reported drunk for duty.
The number of near misses in 2009 was disclosed in response to an RTI reply to Abhishek Shukla, but the DGCA did not reveal the dates on which the incidents took place, the airlines involved or action, if any, taken against the airlines and the pilots involved.
A near miss may be caused by many factors, one being lack of coordination between the Air Traffic Controller and the pilot, one or both of whom could be working under conditions of extreme stress. Another factor is the burgeoning number of flights flying in and out of the major airports, caused by the induction of numerous low cost airlines.
For example, on an average day, the Indira Gandhi International Airport at Delhi handles over 700 flights, which carry more than 62,000 passengers. In 2002-03, the same airport was handling only 77 flights a day.
Has the ten-fold increase in passenger traffic been accompanied by a concomitant upgradation of facilitates related to air safety, experts ask. Similarly, the Mumbai airport handles 600 flights per day now compared to only 96 flights per day in 2002-03. A major accident was averted at the Mumbai airport recently when a Kingfisher Airways flight, carrying 30 passengers and crew, was asked to abort take-off minutes before a GoAir plane was cleared to land.
Even the VVIP flights have been endangered by pilot error as demonstrated by a near miss last year when an Air Force helicopter carrying President Pratibha Patil landed on the same runway from which a Delhi-bound Air India aircraft with 150 passengers was about to take off. The pilot of the Air India plane had applied emergency brakes and aborted take off.
"The DGCA needs to carry out serious investigations and punish the guilty in such a way that the incidents are minimised," a former civil aviation regulator said. "But most often the pilots are only taken off flying duties for a brief period and then they are back" he said.
Similarly, with regard to pilots reporting drunk for duty, the DGCA also revealed in April that "during the last one year, a total number of 42 alcohol-positive cases were detected".
Once again, the DGCA did not give details of the pilots or the names of the airlines involved, except to say that action "is taken against the crew members as per regulatory provisions".
The DGCA is the regulatory body for civil aviation in India and is responsible for monitoring pilots and ensuring safety of operations. Drunkenness among pilots directly impacts flight safety and aviation authorities around the world, including the International Civil Aviation Organisation, mandate a zero tolerance to alcohol where pilots and cabin crew are concerned, experts say.
"The rules prescribe that there shall be no trace of alcohol in the blood of the pilot and the cabin crew. Alcohol in the blood numbs the senses and dulls the reflexes and increases response time. The effect of alcohol is much more at high altitudes," former director general of civil aviation Kanu Gohain told PTI.
In response to an RTI question, the DGCA did not specify whether the pilots were detected before they boarded the aircraft and whether they were prevented from operating a flight after alcohol was detected in their blood sample. The nature of the action taken against the pilots was also not revealed.