'The DGCA, the ministry of civil aviation, Air India, the Airports Authority, all of them together form what I call an organised syndicate.'
'In India, it is a fashion to blame the pilot because then nobody asks questions about the incompetence and grave negligence of this State-run syndicate.'
Yeshwant Shenoy is determined to ensure the safety of fliers in India.
The Ernakulam lawyer has been doggedly highlighting various lacunae in the norms and laws governing India's civil aviation sector.
Shenoy took on India's civil aviation regulator, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation after the unfortunate Mangalore airport air crash in 2010.
- If you take flights in India, please read this interview
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"In the case of Kozhikode airport, the DGCA should have put restrictions on conditions when airlines could land or take off," Shenoy tells Prasanna D Zore/Rediff.com after last Friday's Air Indian Express crash in Kozhikode. The first of a two-part interview:
Who should take the responsibility for the Kozhikode plane crash on August 7?
Without a doubt, the DGCA must accept the responsibility.
And here, let me emphasise, it is not the DGCA alone. I have been relentlessly fighting against the DGCA's recklessness and of other entities responsible for safety of fliers in India.
Newspapers, TV channels rake up an issue only when there are crashes like this (at Kozhikode) one. But throughout the last 10 years, I have been always in one court or the other, taking on the DGCA, the ministry of civil aviation, the Airports Authority of India. Consistently, I have been fighting these institutions that have played with the passengers' safety.
Based on what I have seen and dug out in these 10 years I am telling you it is not the DGCA alone. This is a State-run syndicate running India's aviation and that's the reason why it is the most dangerous and most potent because they have been doing this without any checks and balances.
Just imagine what happens when the State itself runs a well-organised syndicate. The DGCA, the ministry of civil aviation, Air India, the Airports Authority (of India), all of them together, form what I call an organised syndicate.
Aren't your allegations baseless?
Let me explain to you why I call them so and the basis of my charges.
These airports are inherently dangerous given their location atop a hill.
Everybody is after Kozhikode now. What I am saying is it's not about Kozhikode that you need to be worried.
You need to be worried about where next because this is not going to end with Kozhikode.
Unlike 2010 (Mangalore), this (crash at Kozhikode) is the first of the series. And why I am saying so is that the system that is supposed to work is completely dismantled by this organised racket.
What they have done is either they have sidelined competent honest officers within these organisations or ensured that they get punished for their honesty and competence.
And then what happens is the suckers out there, the incompetent ones who keep the bosses happy are promoted.
This has been consistently happening for the last 10 years.
I have been watching so closely and some of my petitions are there in the courts specifically naming some of these (incompetent) officers. Over time, all these officers have become departmental heads.
Now, if you have a departmental head, who is incompetent, what can you speak about the department? So that is why I am saying that this is a State-run syndicate.
If anybody tells me it was the weather conditions (because of which the plane crash at Kozhikode happened), it was this thing, that thing, remember one thing: No air crashes ever happened in the world just because of one reason.
You have to have an entire chain of events. We call it the Swiss Model of Accident Causation. It is like each cheese slice having holes and then accidents happen only when all these holes align themselves.
Now, take aircraft, for example. Suppose an aircraft's engine is bad. A bad engine alone will not bring down the plane.
Take, for example, how many times an airline operator has had in-flight engine shutdowns, but none of them ended up in an accident because there are trained pilots there.
Now imagine this scenario: An in-flight engine shutdown, bad weather and a fatigued pilot. These three causes together can cause a crash.
Here (about the Kozhikode plane crash) if one says there is just one reason why this crash happened then he is fooling you.
The narrative to explain this crash is blaming the pilots's -- who are no longer alive to defend themselves -- misjudgment while landing.
In India, it is a fashion to blame the pilot because then nobody asks questions about the incompetence and grave negligence of this State-run syndicate.
While one can always blame the pilots for such mishaps, in plane crash investigations, what you need to do is not put the blame on the pilot, but understand or try to find out why he acted in the way in which he acted.
I have been telling this in the context of the Mangalore crash.
In Mangalore, we had a very clear reason (for the pilot to do what he did). There was a wrong marking on the runway which showed him 2,000 feet of runway remaining and he decided to land.
Look what happened (at Kozhikode airport). We will get to know only when this thing is investigated fairly and independently.
But look what this syndicate is up to now. The investigation is handed over to the AAIB (Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau) instead of a court of inquiry, which is a government-headed organisation.
When ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation) and FAA (Federal Aviation Administration, which is responsible for civil viation safety in the US) were conducting audits, they told the Indian aviation regulator, the DGCA, that as long as India doesn't have an independent air crash accident investigator, they will downgrade India.
To ensure that doesn't happen, they brought in this body called the AAIB and filled it with incompetent DGCA officials.
Basically, what they will do now is in this crash they will all blame the pilot: The DGCA, the civil aviation ministry, ICAO and FAA, all of them will blame the pilot.
We are not going to get to know the truth.
After Mangalore I started working on aviation safety issues. The Mangalore crash dragged me to aviation safety and today I have 10 years' experience in this field.
I may not be an aviator, I may not be a pilot, I may not be a traffic controller, but I have studied, I have researched and I know where things could go wrong.
What could have gone wrong at Kozhikode airport?
The airport itself: That airport is not suitable for that kind of operation (landing when it rains heavily and accompanied by strong tailwinds).
The airport itself is unsuitable and yet DGCA has given permissions to run this airport.
What DGCA did in 2011 is declared 11 airports (Leh, Kullu, Mangalore, Patna, Latur, Jammu, Port Blair, Agartala, Lengpui, Shimla and Calicut) as 'critical'.
Once DGCA labels an airport as 'critical' it leaves it up to the airlines operators to do their own risk assessment.
Once every airline operator knows the dangers there then they have to decide how they should operate there.
By doing this, the DGCA has passed the buck on to the airlines operators.
Is this how aviation is run in every other country?
No. Let me explain to you in a language that lay people will understand.
Let's take the example of the Yamuna Expressway.
If you are in a BMW or a Mercedes, you can drive your car at 200 kmph. But will you do that? Can you do that?
You can't because there is a speed limit put by the government. So, even if your car can go at the speed of 200 kmph, the government has put a speed limit of 100 kmph on that road.
You cannot go beyond this speed limit set by the government and that is called operational restriction.
In the case of Kozhikode airport, the DGCA too should have put restrictions on conditions when airlines could land or take off.
They should have set conditions when the airport could be used for landings and take offs and the conditions when it cannot be operational.
Instead of doing this the DGCA has just termed some airports as critical airports and nowhere in the world will you find the definition of critical airports. There is no such definition in the aviation terminology at all.
What exactly does the DGCA mean by terming an airport as a critical airport?
That you need to ask the DGCA, but even they have no clue about it.
In one word if I have to tell you what it is, then it is: saving their own skin. It has no definition.
Nobody understands what this DGCA invention is.
Which are the other airports in India that have been called critical and where, in your opinion, mishaps like the one at Kozhikode may happen next?
Some of these critical airports are having certain terrain issues and so declared as critical.
Now, look at an airport like Delhi, a beautiful airport; even that has been spoiled by the DGCA, the Airports Authority of India and the ministry of civil aviation.
There is a huge demand for land around airports like Mumbai and so the real estate value of the land is very high there. There are limitations as to what the height of your buildings will be in the vicinity of airports.
I have taken the DGCA, the AAI and the ministry of civil aviation to the court on the issue of heights of buildings that are allowed to be constructed in the vicinity of airports.
There are global best practices that put certain limits on the height of buildings around the airport.
And if any building violates this height limit then that building is called an obstacle.
To bypass or sideline these limits, this organised syndicate did some sham aeronautical study based on which they started giving permissions to buildings to come up around the airport in Mumbai.
This is happening more around Mumbai than Delhi because in Mumbai there is a strong real estate lobby.
In Delhi too there are around 369 obstacles around the airport and it is the DGCA that has filed an affidavit to that effect in the court.
I took them to the court and they had to declare how many obstacles are there. Now the court has ordered demolition of these 369 obstacles.
What is happening in Mumbai though is shocking.
There are 467 obstacles only in the approach. When an aircraft prepares for take-off or landing at an airport, it enters a funnel, an imaginary channel, for proper take-offs and landings.
It is in this funnel there are 467 obstacles at Mumbai airport.
If you look at the entire restricted area then there will be more than 5,000 plus buildings that can act as obstacles.
So, even good airports like Mumbai and Delhi are being destroyed by this State-run organised syndicate.
Take, for example, the proposed airport at Navi Mumbai. It's a greenfield airport.
Now even before this area was declared as the site of the proposed airport, the politicians who had this inside information purchased land around it and constructed so many tall buildings.
And we are having CIDCO, which is on record saying that they are going to have a runway which is 'displaced'.
Let me explain what a displaced runway is.
In Delhi we are having four-km runway length, which is displaced by one-and-a-half kilometres.
So, Delhi has a runway which is four kilometres long, but there is a Shiv Murti that is an obstacle. It is in the take-off zone. So, they had to decrease the runway by one-and-half kilometres.
That makes the effective length of Delhi airport at two-and-half kilometres instead of four kilometres.
While even this two-and-half kilometre runway is enough for landing and take-off it also depends on the aircraft that is landing here. If it is an A380, it requires more landing space.
So in spite of having such good infrastructure, because some officers wanted to make some money somewhere, they ended up doing all these kind of things.
Now, the entire airport itself is wasted because despite having four kilometres of runway you cannot use it.
And all this is because the DGCA and the Airports Authority allowed buildings to come up in violation of rules around the airport.