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Fresh air crash heightens safety concerns

April 23, 2012

relatives-of-the-bhoja-air-crash-victims-consoling-each-other
Relatives of victims of the Bhoja Air airliner crash console each other at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi.—Reuters Photo

KARACHI: Four tragic plane crash incidents and at least three other incidents of aircraft escaping similar disasters within a couple of years have not only raised serious doubts about the air safety measures supposed to be taken by Pakistani airlines but also exposed the inefficiency of the Civil Aviation Authority — the authority responsible to ensure the observance of all relevant laws by the airlines using Pakistani air space.

Three of the four aircraft that crashed during the period had taken off from Jinnah International Airport (Karachi) that houses the CAA headquarters. The fourth crashed aircraft had flown from Lahore.

The first airliner that crashed in 2010 was a commercial passenger plane belonging to the Airblue. It took off from Karachi and crashed into the Margala Hills while approaching Islamabad airport. There were no survivors.

The next plane meeting the same fate was a small chartered aircraft belonging to the JS Air. Carrying over 20 people associated with a European oil company, it flew from Karachi airport and was scheduled to land at the company’s oil fields in the interior of the Sindh. It crashed within seconds after the take-off hardly a couple of kilometers from the runway.

All people on board were killed in the crash, which took place within a few months after the Airblue disaster.

In Feb 2012, a small training aircraft that took off from Lahore airport with a female trainer and a trainee pilot on board and crashed into a residential area of Model Town. The plane belonged to the Hybrid Aviation.

In the latest incident, a Bhoja Air’s passenger plane carrying 127 people on board flew from Karachi and crashed minutes before landing at Islamabad airport on April 20.

Alarming calls

At least three small trainee aircraft of the Schon Flying Club had had close calls within a span of a few months as their engines had shut down midair during training sessions. The people on board were lucky enough to have found open spaces, where they landed safely — one of them near the city between the Superhighway and National Highway and the other in a Malir playground. The third one landed at a place between Hyderabad and Karachi.

There have been reports of some PIA aircraft having faced engine shutdown midair and somehow landing safely.

These so many accidents and mishaps speak volumes about the sense of responsibility in the relevant executives of the airlines and the CAA vis-à-vis air safety that includes keeping aircraft in complete order in all respects.

PIA had been facing criticism for long for failing to ensure proper maintenance of its fleet and sometimes it had to ground in Europe owing to safety considerations. Currently, its engineering department is facing trouble in satisfying the European Union aviation authorities on the issue.

Although keeping its aircraft in complete order is primarily the responsibility of the airline concerned, it is the duty of the CAA to ensure regular checks and monitor observance of relevant rules by airlines.

So many incidents of plane crash and mishaps within a couple of years make one believe that neither the airlines nor the CAA was discharging their responsibilities properly.

The CAA has repeatedly been accused of nepotism and favouritism over allowing unqualified and non-technical people to hold and continue to occupy the posts demanding highly qualified and technical professionals. It also remains under criticism for not strictly enforcing the rules and regulations supposed to be observed by airlines.

No heads roll

Recently, the media had highlighted an issue indicating that one of the private airlines — Shaheen Air — after inducting aircraft on wet lease was operating them with foreign crew who had repeatedly failed CAA examinations. But the CAA granted them ‘waivers’ despite the fact that the crew did not have a security clearance from the Pakistan’s security agencies. However, no corrective measures were taken at any level. The crew continued to operate and the security agencies, despite taking up the issue with the CAA, remained unmoved.

In the case of Bhoja Air, it was observed that the rules pertaining to the permission to operate an airline were not observed. Before resuming its operations after a long break, the airline had to pay a huge amount to the CAA to clear outstanding dues but this was overlooked.

‘Favouritism’

Sources in the CAA said that the country’s highly sensitive institution was plagued by favouritism, which also contributed to its constantly declining performance and poor monitoring of airlines. They pointed out that an accounts group officer, Fauzia Saleem, who was on deputation and heading its finance department was posted as air traffic director, a technical position, to make way for the posting of an influential officer.

Similarly, they said, her previous position was given to Dr Fazlullah Pechuho, who had a degree in medicine and belonged to the bureaucracy’s district management group.

The sources said that for over a year now, the CAA did not have a fulltime director of flight standards. The post was previously held by a flight inspector, Javed Saeed Chaudhry on an ad-hoc basis. Chaudhry worked here on deputation and after his repatriation to PIA, Abid Hassan, another official on deputation from PIA working as an inspector, was made director on an ad-hoc basis.

According to the sources, Hassan does not qualify for the post of inspector as he has no experience of 5,000 hours of flying as captain-in-charge. However, he was made director, a post requiring much higher qualification.

Selection of probe team

The sources said the CAA had a strange mode of selecting investigators in air crash incidents. For one of the previous investigations when a black box of a crashed aircraft was to be dispatched for decoding, a two-member team was formed, they recalled, and said that one of members was a medical doctor taking his assignment as a pleasure trip. However, he was dropped from the team when the media exposed the wrongdoing, they added.

The sources said that the International Civil Aviation Organisation rules stated that all airlines should have the flight data acquisition equipment kept in the aircraft but some private airlines willfully ignored the rule while the CAA looked the other way.

Palpa concern

The Pakistan Air Lines Pilots Association has also expressed its serious concern over the increasing number of air accidents in the country, and urged the CAA to take notice of air safety rules violations by stakeholders. Palpa chief Sohail Baloch said that his association had already recommended setting up of an independent organisation with the task of suggesting, implementing and monitoring air safety measures. He stressed that an independent body also be set up for investigations into air crash incidents and other accidents without coming under pressure from any institution.