One year on, probe into Karachi plane crash remains inconclusive

Published May 22, 2021
Rescue workers gathered in Model Colony after a Pakistan International Airlines aircraft crashed in the residential area in Karachi on May 22, 2020. — AFP/File
Rescue workers gathered in Model Colony after a Pakistan International Airlines aircraft crashed in the residential area in Karachi on May 22, 2020. — AFP/File

KARACHI: While the probe into the PK-8303 crash that claimed the lives of 97 of the 99 passengers and crew members on board and one girl on the ground on May 22, 2020 is still inconclusive, the national flag carrier has been accused of delaying the insurance claims of a majority of the victims’ families on the pretext of not having signed an indemnity agreement that would release internationally all parties from liabilities.

On May 22, 2020 PK-8303, a Pakistan International Airlines domestic flight originated in Lah­ore, made a failed landing attempt on a runway at Karachi airport on its engines without lowering the landing gear and crashed into houses in nearby Model Colony later while trying to go around.

As per standard operating procedures, the federal government had formed the Aircraft Accident and Investigation Board (AAIB) with Air Commodore Usman Ghani as its president, while investigators from Airbus, the manufacturer of the ill-fated A320 plane, US National Trans­portation Safety Board (NTSB) and other experts co-opted by the board later joined the probe.

Only 36 of the 97 victims’ families have received insurance money

A month after the crash a preliminary investigation report was presented in the National Assembly by Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan.

The findings of that preliminary report, which questioned the role of pilots and Karachi air traffic control — employees of PIA and Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) respectively — based on their conversations retrieved from the flight and cockpit data recorders were soon overshadowed by the minister’s claim in parliament that 40 per cent of Pakistani pilots possessed dubious/fake licences.

While the stated scope of the AAIB’s probe is not to fix responsibility or assign blame but to stop occurrence of similar accidents in future, some findings of its preliminary report are very disturbing and paint a picture of negligence and incompetence on part of both the CAA and PIA.

For instance, the report mentioned that when the pilot of the ill-fated aircraft made an attempt to land at runway 25L without lowering the landing gear “the Aerodrome Control observed the scrubbing of engines with the runway but did not covey this abnormality to the aircraft. It was conveyed to the Karachi Approach on telephone. Subsequently Karachi Approach also did not relay this abnormality to the aircraft”.

The AAIB also stated in the preliminary report that the way forward for finalising the probe would include besides many other things an assessment of the Safety Management System of PIA and State Safety Programme (SSP) of the CAA and post-crash initial response by CAA.

While AAIB president Ghani retired from the Pakistan Air Force in December 2020, there is little information as to when the final probe report would see the light of day.

A senior official of the aviation division, under which the AAIB functions, told Dawn on the condition of anonymity that under international obligations the draft of the final report would first be shared with accredited representatives — members of the investigation team representing plane manufacturer, engine manufacturer, NTSB, etc — so that they could review it and submit their responses to the AAIB.

When asked whether AAIB president Usman Ghani resigned over differences, he said he did not resign but retired from the PAF. “The AAIB has been working independently and there is no interference from government,” he claimed.

AAIB statement

On Friday, the AAIB released an interim statement stating that the probe was under progress for formulation of conclusion and safety recommendations. “The AAIB has planned supplementary field visits, and continues to exchange information/data, teleconferences and emails with all stakeholders to evaluate all possible aspects related to the accident. Additionally flight simulation session(s) at Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) facility is being considered in coordination with ACCREPs (subject to COVID-19 travelling restrictions) to evaluate the crew actions.

“Subsequent to the conclusion of investigation and preparation of draft final report, member states will have the opportunity to review and comment on draft final report. After necessary reconciliation/addressing of the comments received from the member states, the final report shall be forwarded to the Govern­ment of Pakistan for approval and public release,” the statement added.

Heirs await justice

However, a majority of the relatives of the 97 victims do not agree with the assertion.

Ever since the crash one year ago, they have been running from pillar to post to seek justice but it seems their efforts are far from bearing fruit.

Recently, they had gathered at the Karachi Press Club and told a press conference that they wanted to know whether the crash was an accident or the result of carelessness or anything else and how could recurrence of such incidents be prevented if there was no punishment for carelessness or any other wrongdoing.

They questioned the poor response of authorities after the plane crash saying valuable lives could have been saved had CAA acted promptly and used foam to put out the fire.

Most of them have not been provided the insurance money — Rs10 million each — because they refused to sign a Release, Discharge Agreement (RDA) that would bar the victims’ relatives from suing the airline, CAA, plane and engine manufacturers and many other parties concerned anywhere in the world.

While the PIA had claimed that it was merely facilitating them in filing the insurance claims with the National Insurance Company Limited (NICL), the victims’ relatives said it was actually forcing them to sign the RDA.

They said only 36 of the 97 victims’ families, including of PIA employees who lost their lives in the crash, were given insurance money after they signed the RDA.

Atif Aman of the Plane Crash Affectees Association told Dawn that some people had challenged the RDA in the Sindh High Court in view of a Peshawar High Court order that reportedly declared RDA illegal while hearing the 2010 Airblue plane crash. “We are also going to challenge it,” he said.

The relatives are going to request the SHC to order PIA and insurance firm to deposit the money in the high court so that it could disburse it among the relatives saving them from signing the RDA.

Published in Dawn, May 22nd, 2021

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