Pakistan has lost 1193 lives in airplane crashes since its independence. The worst crash was of PIA Boeing 707 in 1979 which killed all 156 passengers on board. The manner in which such disasters are dealt with is deplorable,to say the least. Within a few hours of the tragedy,the public is bombarded with different reasons. Some blame the machinery while others blame natural conditions. Some more brazen individuals choose to point fingers to the flight crew and the aviation officials without much evidence. Investigation in the latest Bhoja air crash is underway but in the context of previous futile investigations,the crash has drawn attention to various issues regarding safety and protocol.
In these disasters,the public likes to immediately question the air worthiness of the aircraft. For the Bhoja Air crash,the media created an uproar over the use of an obsolete plane. Truth is that other Pakistani airlines including our national carrier is using aircrafts much older than the one involved in this crash. Aviation experts argue that it is not the age of the aircraft but the maintenance which is of importance. Airlines must follow preventive maintenance where an instrument or component is replaced after a due time. The atmospheric conditions in which the plane is flying must also be considered. The metrological department claims the wind speed was 30 knots at the time of the Bhoja Air crash. Even a new aircraft would have trouble since it is difficult to tolerate more than 27 knots.
Budgeted airlines are however,notorious for forgoing certain procedures and maintenance to minimize costs. So far these suspicions are being supported by some media reports which claim that the altimeter and speedometer of Bhoja Air 737-200 was not working properly.
In a pool of possible culprits,the Civil Aviation Authority ( CAA) emerges as a significant stakeholder. The CAA oversees all commercial aviation activities like runway management,weather reporting,radar control,aircraft fitness tests and air space management.
Accordingly,the CAA should not issue fitness certificates to aircrafts which are not up worthy of flight. The near disasters of the two aircrafts of Shaheen Airways and one of PIA in Multan,raises serious questions regarding the quality of aircraft inspection. Bhoja Air was using aircrafts which had been grounded for almost 10 years. Why was it then allowed to fly? Were the inspectors incompetent in detecting these faults,simply negligent or worse,pressurized to cover up these faults? The Safety Investigation Board (SIB) is currently being unlawfully headed by the CAA. The International Civil Aviation Organization strictly upholds the independence of the investigative body to ensure fair probes into irregularities and mistakes.
While weather conditions are beyond human control,Clive Irving,author of Wide-Body:The Triumph of the 747,asserts that flights are not at risk in stormy conditions as long as the right safety precautions are being taken. In case the climate is too unfavorable,it is the job of the aviation authorities to decide if a plane must be cleared for flight. Should weather conditions change for the worse in a flight,the CAA is meant to help the pilot make the best decision of either bypassing the high pressure zone or changing route to a safer destination.
There are a many alarming revelations surfacing about air traffic controllers (ATC) in Pakistan. According to international standards,an ATC is not supposed to manage more than 7 flights at one time. In Pakistan however,one ATC might be handling 24-27 flights. It would then be natural to expect some blunders from an overworked ATC.
The management of CAA is no better,perhaps even worse than their subordinates. Political contacts take precedence over merit and as of right now,three appointees have close links to the President of Pakistan. CAA has experienced the leadership of 18 Director Generals in its 28 years of life. The current DG has been changing his positions as the MD of PIA,DG of CAA while performing as an active pilot in PIA. Many other head of departments are retired members of the air force. They come to work in the CAA for a brief time and often lack a complete understanding of civil aviation which causes hurdles in management and supervision.
Besides these repetitive acts of cronyism,CAA’s mismanagement has resulted in irregularities in procurement of 24 firefighting vehicles,non-payment of dues by airlines and other unnecessary expenditures . They were even accused of a Rs. 15 billion scam to extract money from the public on the pretext of entry fees and parking charges at the Islamabad airport. Only a few months ago,a private airline was found operating 4 unregistered aircrafts manned by a crew which had not been cleared by CAA. And now after this tragic loss of 121 lives,Bhoja Air was still operating and that too with only 2 aircraft whereas no private airline is allowed to operate with less than 4 aircrafts.
A significant majority likes to hold the pilot and the flight crew responsible. The Flight Standard Committee of the CAA is trusted to keep a vigilant eye over the quality of the flight crew. It has formulated comprehensive medical tests which assesses the mental and physical health of the crew every 6 months. However,it appears that these standards are not applicable to the Head to Flight Standard Committee whose experience is less than the required 7000 hours of active duty in a commanding position including duty on advanced aircrafts like Boeing 747. Airlines together with the CAA have been accused of breaking safety rules by employing crew members who have crossed the retirement age limit.
The Bhoja air crash has a lot of puzzling facts. For instance,since the plane caught fire midair there could not have been a fault in the landing gear;it managed to cover most of its route so a technical problem must have developed in last few minutes of its journey;the airplane had been cleared for landing implying that a safe landing was not impossible;if there was bad weather the pilot should have redirected the flight. These theories will keep running wild until a full investigation report is revealed. The really disturbing issue is that none of the stakeholders involved can defend themselves with full certainty.
We can never bring back the loved ones of the grieved but this is another opportunity for airlines,civil aviation and the Pakistani government to introspect and pledge to resolve these anomalies. While extensive procedures exist for commercial aviation,they are mostly limited to paper. Just like other air crash investigations,the latest air crash is being investigated by multiple bodies which at times create redundancy and confusion. As a regulatory body,the CAA must be independent so that its services are not shadowed by politics and bureaucracy. Only when it is free of political entanglement,will it have an opportunity to give talented and experienced personnel a chance to improve their institution. By the same account,employees will no longer be able to avoid accountability. Stricter quality standards would also compel airlines to conform to these benchmarks.
In a country plagued with corruption,our people have come to accept their wistful living conditions be it an unpaved road,the poor quality of public transport or the harmful discharge of sewage. Bringing improvements is an active process but we must never lose hope of a better and safer life. The Peshawar High Court’s decision against DG CAA is an encouraging example. Hopefully this time justice will be served so that many lives can be saved and air travel can once again become safe and enjoyable.