Even hours after the tragic plane crash at Kozhikode in Kerala, in which at least 18 people have died, the exact reasons behind the incident are still unknown.
However, the one fact that is being widely discussed is the design of the runway —called a table-top runway — the sort which is located on top of a plateau or hill with one or both ends adjacent to a steep precipice which drops into a gorge. These runways are particularly difficult to negotiate, especially during heavy rains such as those reported in the area at the time of the accident.
One reason why the design of the runway is being discussed by experts is that the tragedy that unfolded at Kozhikode's Karipur airport bears an uncanny resemblance to one of the worst aviation disasters in India — the plane crash at Mangalore airport in 2010, in which 158 people had lost their lives. The airport at Mangalore has similar topography to that of the airport in Kozhikode and is also one of the few table-top airports of the country.
Besides the basic design of the airport, the two incidents share eery similarities. In both cases, heavy showers were reported at the time of landing, the planes skidded off their runways, pilots, too, were said to have substantial flying experience, and passengers were being brought in from Dubai.
India's top aviation body, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), in a statement released late night on Friday, said, "Because of the undulating terrain and constraints of space, these airfields require extra skill and caution while carrying out flight operations." But the incident has sparked a debate on whether the airport met the basic standards of safety.
Air Safety expert Captain Mohan Ranganathan, in a statement to NDTV, said that he had detailed in a report around nine years ago that Calicut (now Kozhikode) airport was not safe for landings. "The runway has a steep downslope, no safety area. They were warned nine years back and given proof but they continued to operate and declared the airport safe," Captain Ranganathan told NDTV, claiming that he had predicted a disaster in 2020 in some airfields and Kozhikode was among them, though the MP of the area Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, told media that the airport was "by no means a small one" and handled a considerable number of international flights.
DGCA has in its statement has argued that the runway at Kozhikode airport was long enough for landings and take-offs, certainly longer than the airstrip at the Mangalore airport, where over a hundred-and-fifty people lost their lives in May 2010.
"Mangalore Airport had a tabletop runway with a length of only 1625 metres. This short runway restricted the type of aircraft operations," the statement said, adding that the runway at Karipur airport, had a length of "2450 metres, which facilitates operations by aircraft such as Boeing 737-800 and Airbus 320. The new runway 24/06 provides night landing facilities and an ILS Cat-I from the earlier offset ILS. The Rescue and Fire Fighting Services were upgraded to category 7."
All eyes will now be on the results of the detailed inquiry that DGCA has ordered into the matter.