The PIA crash is a reminder that the aviation industry provides little margin for error
From a “we are comfortable now, established on ILS 25L” that soon led to a repeated declaration of “Mayday”, the partial transcript of air traffic control conversation that is available offers an insight into the catastrophic (disastrous) end to PK-8303. The Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flight, from Lahore to Karachi, with 91 passengers and eight crew, was operated using an Airbus A320-214, an aircraft type that is one of aviation’s reliable and modern workhorses. Initially, while visual evidence, as photographs and video footage, offered some clues about what might have overwhelmed the pilots of the nearly 16-year-old jetliner, it is the recovery, later, of the crucial blackboxes that is significant. In the backdrop too is the offer of full technical assistance by the manufacturer, Airbus, and the involvement of western air safety agencies and Pakistan’s inquiry team. These factors will aid investigators in getting a handle on the series of events. May 22, the day of the accident — there are two survivors — also marked the 10th anniversary of another air disaster, the crash of IX-812, an Air India Express flight on the Dubai-Mangaluru sector.
Air safety commentators (critic) point in a relevant direction. Though authorities in Pakistan and PIA, an established flag carrier, have detailed the plane’s technical, flight and maintenance history, there is a swirl around the operator’s not-so-impressive air safety record. There is also another core and related issue. The COVID-19 pandemic has scorched (burn) commercial airline operations and balance sheets, but with airline managers across the world attempting to give wings to their fleets after prolonged grounding, experts highlight a key phrase: ‘no half measures’. The necessity of flying machines being returned to service after a complete maintenance check and, more importantly, aircrew being allowed at the controls only after key proficiency checks in a full flight simulator have to be stressed repeatedly. This is a subject that aviation (the flying or operating of aircraft) regulators can ill-afford to overlook, and a challenge too, given that it is airlines with deep pockets or with access to financial lifelines that can bridge such issues. The tragedy in Pakistan has also spotlighted another long-standing safety concern. The crippled jet’s fiery end, while on approach, in a densely populated neighbourhood lining the airport, highlights the danger of buildings and obstacles (barrier) affecting airline operations and safety. In India, the authorities concerned have often glossed over High Court orders to demolish structures around aerodromes that violate stringent guidelines laid down by the International Civil Aviation Organization. In the interest of aviation safety, airline crew do deserve a comfort margin and, in an extreme event, every chance at pulling off a Sully as the world wished the PIA crew to have done.