Chairman of Air India’s parent company defends safety record


The chairman of Air India’s parent company defended the airline’s record after a fatal crash Saturday, saying that the pilot and co-pilot were qualified and experienced, not fatigued, and were flying in compliance with Indian regulatory guidelines.

Arvind Jadhav, chairman and managing director of National Aviation Company of India Ltd., said that authorities had identified 128 bodies of the 158 people killed early Saturday in the crash in Mangalore, southern India.

The accident occurred when an Air India Express flight from Dubai landed at the city’s hilltop airport, which is surrounded by valleys, and then veered off the runway into a valley and burst into flames. Eight people survived the crash. Mr. Jadhav said Air India trains its pilots for landing at Mangalore.

The cause of the accident is being investigated by India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation. The agency’s director general, S.N.A. Zaidi, said in a press release Sunday evening that investigators had found the cockpit voice recorder in the wreckage of the Boeing 737-800 but that the search for digital flight-data recorder was continuing.

The statement said that a preliminary investigation of navigational and runway facilities at the time of the accident had been completed but that analysis of cockpit voice recordings and flight data would take about two weeks. Boeing Co., which built the plane, and investigators from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board will participate in the probe.

Relatives of the dead, mostly migrant workers and their families returning home to India from the Middle East, arrived over the weekend to claim the victims’ bodies.

The victims included Mahendra Kulkarni, a telecommunications company director in the United Arab Emirates, who was returning to India with his ailing mother-in-law after she had slipped into coma, their cousin Nandit Banawalikar told the Associated Press.

The crash comes as India seeks to address concerns that it lacks the safety regulations and skilled flight inspectors needed to oversee its rapidly growing aviation industry.

India has had a relatively good air-safety record in recent years and hadn’t suffered a fatal airline crash for nearly a decade.

But international aviation authorities have scrutinized the government’s regulations and safety regime and raising red flags about oversight and a shortage of well-trained flight inspectors.

In the past, some Indian carriers also have had to contend with morale and safety problems stemming from a shortage of experienced pilots, especially captains.

There also have been persistent problems prompted by cultural differences when Western aviators are teamed with Indian pilots.

Last year, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration considered downgrading India’s safety rating, a move that would have dealt a major blow to big carriers like Jet Airways and state-controlled Air India. The U.S. agency’s primary concern was whether the country’s air-safety regulators had enough independence and expertise.

The FAA decided against the downgrade—capping months of sensitive, behind-the-scenes negotiations—after the Indian government demonstrated efforts to increase hiring and training of safety officials.

The growth of India’s aviation market in the past decade has put pressure on its safety regulators, experts say.

Total passenger traffic has increased to 69 million people in 2009 from 37 million people in 2005, while the number of landings and takeoffs has grown more than 80% over the same period, according to government data.

The number of jetliners has tripled since the late 1990s.

India isn’t the only country to face challenges in overseeing its airline sector as it expands.

China, Russia and other countries that have seen rapid growth in aviation also have struggled to keep safety standards high.

Crashes involving runway overruns, dubbed “runway excursions” by safety experts, constitute the most common type of commercial-aircraft and business-jet crashes around the world.

These kinds of accidents—almost always resulting from excessively fast and steep approaches to runways—have accounted for nearly 40% of all commercial accidents world-wide since the 1990s.

While the majority don’t end in deaths, the overall number of such accidents often makes them the largest single cause of airline fatalities annually.

One of the issues investigators are expected to explore in Saturday’s crash is the size and makeup of the safety zone around the Mangalore strip.

Runway excursions and substandard safety areas aren’t restricted to airports in developing countries.

American Airlines and Southwest Airlines are two U.S. carriers that have experienced runway excursions on wet or snowy runways in recent years, with investigators later determining that the pilots should have opted to break off their approaches and go around for another landing attempt.

Neither of those crashes ended in fatalities. A number of U.S. regional carriers also have been criticized by air-safety investigators for improper landings that ended in planes careening off runways.

Air India has been struggling to overcome the global recession, payments for new aircraft, an entrenched staff, a botched merger and increasing competition from private carriers.

In the year ended March 31, its parent company, National Aviation, is estimated to have posted losses totaling about $1.2 billion, making it one of the global industry’s most unprofitable carriers and a major financial problem for the Indian government.

Mr. Jadhav, National Aviation’s chairman, has been trying to turn the airline around by seeking to cut employee ranks, increase cargo on long-haul flights and persuade the government to inject about $2.2 billion in funds.

The airline’s origins date from 1932, when Indian industrialist and aviation pioneer J.R.D. Tata founded Tata Airlines. It later became government-owned Air India. In 2007, Air India was merged with Indian Airlines, the state-run domestic service. But the merger has been only partially completed.