South Asia

Crash casts shadow on India's air safety record

Wreckage of plane after crash
Image caption The Boeing 737 crash was the first in India in nearly ten years

The crash of Air India Express Flight 812 has cast a shadow over India's relatively decent air safety record.

It is the first crash in nearly 10 years and the worst since 1996, when a mid-air collision between two passenger planes near Delhi left 349 people dead.

It is also the first for Air India Express, the low-cost subsidiary of state-owned Air India, the national carrier.

The Indian aviation industry has witnessed massive growth in the past decade, mirroring the country's economic growth.

It has led to a number of new airlines being launched, many of them aimed at budget travellers, and has made air travel cheaper and accessible to a whole new class of Indians.

But many say that while the industry has modernised, and the new airlines have brought in new service standards, it is still hampered by red tape and excessive political interference.

An investigation has now been ordered into the cause of the crash.

'Disastrous'

It will draw attention to Mangalore airport, which was built on a plateau on top of a hill, ending in a sharp drop leading into a deep gorge.

Image caption Mr Patel said he felt "morally responsible" for the crash

Although the runway length was 8,000ft (2,400m) - long enough to operate aircraft like the Boeing 737 - it has a relatively short spillover area which means that if a pilot miscalculated the height and distance at which to land, he could be in trouble.

"If you overshoot, if your brakes fail or if you can't stop the aircraft for any reason, then it will fall and roll over the cliff into the valley with disastrous consequences - and that is what happened here today," says Air Marshal Denzil Keelor, a former safety adviser to the Civil Aviation Ministry.

The Air India Express aircraft was operated by a two-member crew, an Indian and an expatriate pilot, a Serbian national who was in command.

"He had over 10,000 hours of flying experience and was familiar with Mangalore's table-top runway, having landed there nearly 20 times," says India's Civil Aviation Minister, Praful Patel.

India has several hundred foreign pilots - they were brought in after the industry was deregulated, which led to a shortage of experienced pilots.

But this is a sensitive issue.

Many Indian pilots have complained that the foreign pilots are not subject to rigorous checks and some, from non-English speaking countries, have had problems in communicating with their Indian counterparts.

'Overworked'

There are other issues. Pilots complain that they are overworked and not given enough time off.

Image caption Relatives are left to mourn those who died in the Boeing 737 crash

Two years ago, an Air India Express flight from Mumbai to Dubai overshot its destination by 350 miles (560km) after its pilots apparently fell asleep due to fatigue.

But much of the focus will also be on the crashed airline's parent company, Air India.

The airline has been criticised for being overstaffed and inefficient, and it is in financial crisis.

In February, the government approved a $173m (£120m) cash bailout.

Many believe the airline is badly managed by the government and plagued with political interference.

These are questions which will certainly be raised in the days and weeks to come, as everyone tries to get to the bottom of Saturday's fatal crash.