There are few tragedies more heart-rending than a major plane crash. The Hindu expresses its deep solidarity with the families of the 158 men, women, and children who died in India's worst aviation disaster in a decade. Preliminary reports indicate that Air India Express's Boeing Flight IX-812 from Dubai could have landed safely at Mangalore's admittedly tricky ‘tabletop' runway had the experienced expatriate pilot not landed too far down the 2,450 metre runway, with the result that the Boeing 737-800 crashed through the perimeter wall at high speed and plunged into the woods below, breaking in two and bursting into flames. Under the circumstances, the survival of eight passengers was nothing short of a miracle. Preliminary reports also indicate that the weather was fine for the approach; it was not a wet runway; there was no problem with the aircraft; and visibility was good. But in all fairness, there should be no rush to judgment, especially by laypersons on technical matters on which experts are still unclear. The Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) and the Flight Data Recorder (FDR), which have been recovered, should help the inquiry figure out what went calamitously wrong on Saturday morning.
India has a relatively good civil aviation safety record but experts have been expressing the view that safety standards have been slipping in recent years, and that corners are being cut. As an expert has pointed out in this newspaper, there have been a number of “close shaves” in the last few years, highlighting the fact “there is something seriously wrong with the system.” The very nature of the Mangalore crash raises serious questions that need to be addressed by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, the Airports Authority of India that manages the airports, and commercial airlines. Are the highest safety standards being complied with when it comes to location of airport, landing facilities, air traffic control, maintenance of aircraft and, above all, the quality and working conditions of pilots? Is commercially driven pilot fatigue on the rise, as the Indian Commercial Pilots Association alleges? It is understandable that under conditions of unfettered growth of the airline industry, airlines have been hiring foreign pilots. It is not that they cannot perform to Indian standards. But experts have been making the point that the DGCA needs to do a much better job of scrutinising the safety and training standards of commercial airlines (and enforcing, for example, directives on approach and landing) than it appears to be doing. The time has come to consider seriously the constitution of an independent air safety board and an independent regulator.