Air India Express Flight IX-1344 Crash: A Wake-Up Call to Reform DGCA

In a terrible tragedy, Air India Express Flight IX-1344 from Dubai to Calicut experienced a runway excursion and crashed after landing at about 1941h IST on 7 Aug 2020. As per official reports, 18 of the 190 onboard, including both pilots, perished in the crash while over 120 have sustained injuries. This is India’s worst passenger aircraft accident since 2010, when another Air India Express flight from Dubai overshot the runway at Mangalore and slid down a hill, killing 158 people.

Air India has been at the forefront of repatriation flights launched by the Indian government under ‘Vande Bharat Mission’. These flights are a matter of pride — it is part of a national mission to get every Indian home. Every airline would like to fly them. But for unknown reasons, there are nominations in favour of the national carrier Air India and its offspring Air India Express.

Airlines facing multiple crises

These are unprecedented times for aviation. Airlines are grappling with a collapse in demand (70-80%), lockdowns, quarantine requirements, and a general fear of infection. Business and leisure travel is all but dead. All airlines have either laid off employees en masse or instituted deep pay cuts. Against this backdrop, airline crew, particularly from Air India, have been spearheading the repatriation flights.

With the Covid-19 pandemic still raging unabated, 2020 is clearly one of the worst years for aviation globally. There have been two major commercial airline crashes in South Asia region after the lockdowns lifted. The Air India Express IX-1344 crash comes a little over two and half months after Pakistan International Airlines flight PK-8303 from Lahore to Karachi, an Airbus A320, crashed near Karachi airport at about 1439 hours on May 22, 2020. Weather was reportedly not a factor in PK-8303 crash.

Never jump to conclusions in aviation

In the wake of PK-8303 crash, there were many premature conjectures on “why” and “how”. Many irresponsible comments were made. India really doesn’t need to emulate our western neighbour in matters aviation. Yet, we persist. India — as a responsible member of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and one of the leading economies of the world — should be the regional benchmark for aviation safety and efficiency. But the latest crash exposes how far we are from that milestone, given the kind of organisation and systems we have in place for civil aviation.

In the immediate aftermath of any air accident, there will be shock, curiosity and a demand for answers. Globally, it is considered poor form, if not entirely inappropriate and unethical, to pass judgement on any accident till the facts are established through a scientific inquiry. For example, in the United States, only an authorised member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will make any public comment, a very limited one, or none at all, in the difficult moments / days following a crash. This is the norm worldwide.

But in India, “sources”, “aviation experts”, bureaucrats, and even ill-informed ministers start singing like a canary hours after any accident. An insensitive and TRP-hungry media enters this feeding frenzy. All kinds of experts crawl out of the woodwork and start waxing eloquent. Speculation runs riot. Ideally, Accountable Managers, CEO of the airline and authorised persons from civil aviation authority should give out calibrated information that allows the investigation to proceed without bias. In the absence of such mechanisms, conspiracy theories flourish and people hook on to “here’s what happened” channels on social media today. 

Air accident investigation system of India 

India really has no equivalent of the NTSB. There is the Air Accident Investigation Board (AAIB) under Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA). Four days to the accident and we are yet to hear from them. A casual google search for the AAIB website returns an “unsafe” callout. Their website is not even “https” or “safe”. This is the organisation that delves into air accidents in India and makes recommendations to prevent recurrence. Their reports read worse than a middle school assignment. Can any Indian recall a single AAIB member who made significant contributions to flight safety at national or international level? What must be the span and depth of our accident investigation system that does not make a single meaningful contribution to the cause of aviation safety? Who are the experts this system chooses? 

Investigation derailed by inappropriate comments

All air accident reports in India carry this foreword (excerpted from a recent crash report):

“The investigation is conducted not to apportion blame or to assess individual or collective responsibility. The sole objective is to draw lessons from this accident which may help in preventing such accidents in future.”

Yet, even before the Combined Voice and Flight Data Recorder (CVFDR) was decoded, or grieving families handed over the bodies, both pilots (dead) were put in the dock by none other than the prima donna of DGCA — Mr. Arun Kumar, the DG himself. This is shambolic and doesn’t happen in any self-respecting aviation country.

Avoid speculation

Avoiding speculation is fundamental to every accident investigation. It is also legal and binding, especially on agencies like DGCA and AAIB who are vested with the responsibility of ensuring compliance to international conventions and agreements such as ICAO Annex 13 (blatantly breached in the DG’s premature statements to media). During a site visit after the IX-1344 crash, Indian aviation minister Mr. Hardeep Puri specifically requested people not to speculate. Yet, his key functionary, the DGCA himself, fielding leading questions from an equally culpable, sensation-seeking media, was led by the nose into areas he is meant to protect from ambulance chasers.

“It looks like a bad judgment call by the pilot”, DG of civil aviation Mr. Arun Kumar said in the TV interview to CNN News18 (watch an excerpt of the interview here). He harped on the point that the aircraft made a late touchdown. For an instrument runway like Calicut that’s longer than 2400 metres, the touchdown zone extends to 3000 feet (6 sets of TDZ markings spaced 500 ft apart). Touching down 3000 ft down a 9000 ft runway, even under the reported tailwinds, need not result in runway excursion. There will be a host of other factors that are yet to be investigated.

As the DG, Arun Kumar surely has access to much more data than ‘WhatsApp University’. Even so, what the interview calls ‘preliminary assessment’ is at best ‘raw data’: it is not processed, analysed or examined by any authorised agency as per accident investigation protocols. Such premature conjecture derails further process and makes us look like a banana republic in the eyes of international aviation agencies.

Accidents happen when multiple ‘holes’ align 

Instrument Flight Rule (IFR) flight plans — standard for flights like IX-1344 — cater for two approaches before a mandatory diversion, a missed approach at primary diversion, and, if required, a flight to secondary diversion, a missed approach there and then some. There are visibility, runway visual range (RVR, equipment for which is not available at Calicut airport), technical distances and tailwind limits laid down for airfields and specific type of aircraft. The DG’s irresponsible statement steered clear of all this and chose to apportion blame on “bad judgment” on part of the crew. This goes against every tenet of ICAO Annex 13 and accident investigation.

Flight crew spend hours in the box (simulator) and in air, training for the kind of situation that obtained at Calicut during landing on the fateful day. It is neither unique nor “NO GO”. The decision to make a direct approach within tailwind limitations specific to type, IFR procedures for duty runway, attempt an approach, go around at DH to make another approach – all fall within the ambit of the operations manual and a “Captain’s decision”. They wear four stripes for a reason.

Seasonal weather pattern

The Southwest Monsoon was in full fury when IX-1344 left India for Dubai (not known when) and arrived Calicut with repatriated passengers. No other flight crew were killed or injured in the crash, which indicates there were no ‘deadheading’ crew onboard. Weather at Calicut was seasonal: arguably tough, but not out of envelope for a modern aircraft like the B737-800. Actual weather may differ; there could be local phenomena such as thunderstorm, cloudburst, windshear, etc. Crew take all this into account hundreds of miles from destination and plan / revise diversion accordingly.

METAR (weather report) at arrival indicated wind 260/12, visibility 2000m in rain; scattered clouds at 300 ft & 1200 ft, few cumulonimbus at 2500ft, tempo vis 1500m in rain. The southern state of Kerala was under the grip of SW Monsoon.

Experienced crew

At the helm of IX-1344 was an experienced captain — Capt Deepak Vasant Sathe — a former IAF test pilot with many thousands of hours experience across the civil-military spectrum. ‘Missed approach’ executed on first attempt could mean the crew did not acquire the desired visual references at ‘decision height/altitude (DH/DA)’ to continue the landing approach. Returning for a second approach is also standard operating procedure, not some bizarre breakdown. Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), under which the flight was operated, caters for two missed approaches before diversion is invoked. So all the hype around “why did the pilot not divert” is speculatory and ill-informed.

Flying during a pandemic

One must spare a thought on what the pandemic and associated rules can do to a busload of weary passengers returning home on a repatriation flight. It is bad enough to be flying; who would want an unforeseen layover or waiting for hours at an alternate? Diversion in these times come with added complications and pain for all onboard. Could this have weighed on the mind of Capt Sathe as he formulated his arrival plan for Calicut and a likelihood of diversion? We don’t know that yet, but it cannot be overlooked.

Starting an investigation on the wrong foot

The pilots are dead and no longer around to defend themselves. This may be convenient for many in the company, the ministry and DGCA. But the DG’s testimony to media will inevitably bias the investigation that follows. Even in the military, there are several anecdotes where people in authority made premature assessments based on circumstantial evidence, “gut feel”, “in my time” anecdotes, or “confirmation bias”. Those who presided over those courts of inquiry often sniffed the air waves for “what does the boss want?”, rather than “what does available evidence indicate?”

Generalists running the show

In the case of IX-1344 crash and the statements that followed, one thing becomes evident: the Director General Mr. Arun Kumar either does not understand or simply doesn’t care for due diligence in air accident investigation. Use of unprofessional terms like “one side of the runway” or “another side of runway” without detailing the instrument runway(s), category of ILS available (only Category 1 for Calicut), the type of approach procedure involved versus prevailing conditions, etc. only displays an abject lack of aviation knowledge shielded behind the iron-clad PPE of authority. Tomorrow, the DG may simply sidestep to the agriculture ministry and another IAS official from department of fisheries may take the chair. Should such generalists run a specialised department like DGCA?

At the base of this monumental gaffe lies a “system” rotting from the head for many years now. The DGCA is responsible for ensuring aviation safety. Instead, that fence is eating the crop. Countries genuinely interested in advancing aviation will never conduct themselves in a public discourse this way. If the DGCA was a pilot, any flight instructor would have handed him a “failed” report card for basic “airmanship”. The regulator’s incompetence is only matched by arrogance and the unbridled power they wield.

Sadly, the only losers in this deadly game of bluff are fare-paying passengers & their families who are thrown under the bus each and every time. A system predicated on “fix the pilot if alive & bury if dead” will not allow civil aviation in India to grow safely or prevent such recurrences. With the demand for aviation in India, one expects much better, more scientific accident investigation & a “just culture”. The regulator can’t be lapdog to some & watchdog for others. The nation should ask if we have the right people running the “show”, which is what it’s actually become.

The Director General of Civil Aviation Mr. Arun Kumar should tender a public apology or be sacked for irresponsible commentary in the wake of IX-1344 crash.

But as a seasoned aviation watcher in India, I can tell you – neither of that will happen. Life will go on. Because it doesn’t matter around here. That’s the system we have at hand. I will be happy to be proven wrong.

An edited version of this story was first published by The Quint on Aug 10, 2020. You can access that here.


©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2020. All rights reserved. I can be reached at Cover photo from @breakingavnews. Views expressed in this article are personal, except where quoted from sources. Feedback is welcome. Kindly keep the comments clean and respectful of victims and their families.

23 thoughts on “Air India Express Flight IX-1344 Crash: A Wake-Up Call to Reform DGCA

  1. Very sad to read the last paragraph sir. But don’t lose hope sir, the next generation of aviators will strive to better the condition of aviation safety in our country.

    1. An avoidable tragedy compounded by an even more tragic one – the irresponsible and myopic attitude of those who wield power.

      Thanks Kaypius for not mincing your words.
      One just hopes that powers beyond the Ministries and regulators sit up and take notice.

  2. A very professionally written article KPS. You have hit the nail on the head. The way people are appointed into areas that mandate professional knowledge I am hoping some day someone finds me fit to represent the Ferrari team in F1. I sincerely hope the people in positions of responsibility do not repeatedly fall prey to the “Fastest Finger First” syndrome. I can understand the nation’s limitations as far as the elected representatives are concerned when forming a ministry but in government offices like these we need to be professional.

  3. Completely agree with KAYPIUS. Most unfortunate accident followed by loose comments is disrespect to the departed Captain.

    1. Since this is a non scheduled flight, why was it not planned to land in Calicut during day light hours.
      Keeping in mind the weather prevalent in Calicut, the limitations of the runway and all the other factors, a day landing and recovery would have alienated all the hazards of a night landing.

  4. Harsh but to the point unfortunately the truth of the regulatory body needs to be acknowledged by the government.
    You are right the one statement by the DG exposes the whole functioning of the regulator.
    There seems to be some understanding in MOCA about this and hence few changes in last few years. But was it due to pressure from ICAO.
    This government has taken steps to recruit professionals at JS levels to get out of clutches of generalists and lets hope this one organisation needing professionals of highest calibre is also a beneficiary.

    1. Harsh realities of Indian aviation expressed extremely well !! Wonder when are we likely to learn from all this!
      DGCA continues to be not only a retarder but most incompetent in all aspects be it airworthiness or ops regulations ! Pumping the FSD with whole lot of Sarkari inspectors has only added to the woes of the industry instead of improving and being proactive !
      Tragic accident at Calicut is likely to be followed by another one if accountability is not apportioned asap!

  5. I guess, the pilot community must come to terms with the fact that an error can happen (it does happen) when we do a difficult task like piloting a plane. That’s true for aviators, soldiers and doctors alike. What need emphasis is the distinction between an error of judgement (which is more often the case) as compared to a blunder due negligence. Error of judgement is not a crime and can be improved with good training, company culture, CRM, and a host of areas of specilisation. I guess, instead of going defensive after each incident, it is better to stand up to emerging facts gracefully and make corrections in system to avoid another such occurences.

    “What happened” is known. That the approach was not stabilised is a nobrainer from FR24 data. What is important to avoidance of occurence is to figure out “why it happened” – which the AAIB will figure out. What the DG (DGCA) said was right, except that he was not politically correct on day 1 of the accident.

    That’s a dispassionate view devoid of emotions.

    Wishing Blue skies always.

    1. Whenever a decision is made, it does not matter how many hours you have or what training you have done – it has two outcomes – it will be right or it will be wrong. The problem is no one lives ‘that moment’ of the pilot when the decision was made so it is easy to pronounce ‘guilty’ without living that those seconds before and at the time of the decision.
      But that apart – for an idi*t to stand on a dais and give judgement before a proper in-detail/in-depth professional investigation is done and published is what is sad.

    2. The issue is the fact that not one word has been stated by the DGCA in its official capacity re. the accident. No acknowledgement of the incident, no “investigations are ongoing” press release, no emergency helpline numbers, nothing. Yet the DG sees fit to comment off the cuff to the press thereby biasing any potential search for the truth.

    3. Saying two fellows are dead and he did not touch down properly is like asking a class four student to carry out an autopsy. He was well and truly amateurish, remarkably unprepared. He should without doubt tender a public apology. He said what he said with out the CVR/ FDR data being analysed, hence he was NOT correct. His gyan was sourced to hearsay. My two cents.

  6. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) of USA is by far the world’s best aviation safety board. The main reason is that they report to the US Congress, not to the Executive.

    In India we have a half measure for rail safety. The rail safety board reports to the Ministry of Civil Aviation, not to the Railway ministry. On the other hand, in civil aviation, investigations are done by DGCA themselves, not by any independent agency. Further, aircrew input is minimal, even non-existent.

  7. Tragic accident. Sincerely hope we truely learn some lessons to avoid recurrence of such tragedies. God bless

  8. Sir, your articles genuinely engage the reader because they are always loaded with a lot of facts and information, which besides anything else, helps most of us to learn. Your stories are like a refresher training that pilots, mechanics; and, novices like myself must undergo.

    However, this one time, unfortunately so, I felt that your thoughts, as you wrote, were marred with a confirmatory bias – one which singularly focuses at showing the DG, Sh. Arun Kumar, in bad light.

    While I agree with you that he shouldn’t have remarked about the pilots, while the investigation is still on; however, IM’Humble’O I feel that the bigger question here is not why IX-1344 crashed, but why we don’t upgrade our airports and equip them with better equipment? Why is the State Government so reluctant to acquire land to extend the runway? Why doesn’t DGCA simply suspend operations to table-top runways during the monsoon period, while they publish a 53 page CAR on “All Weather Operations” with 11 pages religiously devoted to ‘terminologies and definitions’?

    You rightly pointed out that DGCA should be more proactive in their approach, but not because they are a member of ICAO or whosoever, but simply because this is about us. // By the way, I consider ICAO, WHO and a host of such ‘Organizations’, one and same. //

    Unfortunately so, we can’t pin the blame on any one person or organization when a mishap happens – because, each one of us is equally responsible – when we fail to speak out loud and make an impact about bringing about a change; and, in a way that the change happens; and, we may continue to fail to bring about a change, because that’s how the ‘system’ works. Let’s not stop trying, at-least !

    But, I still feel that changing the DG, Sh. Arun Kumar, who in your opinion is a misfit (simply because he isn’t an aviator), isn’t quite the solution here – he didn’t write any of those CAR’s and Circulars. In all probability, he made that statement in earnest, based on the inputs he received from his fellow officers. But, why didn’t any one of his officers ever remind him that he should be careful when he speaks to the media? Did they want him to err, purposely? Now that’s a dangerous environment to have in an organization responsible to keep our skies safe. “CRM” ?

    If you really want heads to roll, well then, let it be in hordes. Not one, not two, not a few….that’s not enough – to bring about a change !!!

    With sincere regards,

    Vijeet J. Maaheshwary

  9. It is shameful at best. There were two ‘desirables’ in my mind of PM Modi who I thought had the resolve to tackle them, the first was the spiraling population growth and next was to tame the irresponsible Bureaucracy in India. Well, that may not be his aim or a priority – but sure was mine when voted. Unfortunately, as far I am concerned he has failed on both the accounts. DGCA is nothing but a derivative of inefficient and corrupt organisation eating the country hollow – but alas 6 years down the road we can only dream. Being in ‘Aviation’ for over 28 years now – it is easiest to pronounce the guilty party as the Pilots. Everyone can then safely hide behind the dead and carry on with their lives. ATC, Airport manager, Safety services, Aircraft Maintenance staff, and management. I have read many reports and so many times it is – as you called ‘copy-paste job of a school kid’. It’s a shame… and life goes on….

  10. First Of all its extremely Sad what has happened. Trust me a pilot is under severe pressures for his flights and in case if he goes slightly wrong the worry of the repercussions that he will have to deal with later. If he is sure no one CAN reprimand him for his decision as it is taken in the safety of the flight and its passengers, in most of the accidents the outcome will definitely be different.
    Just one thing would like to menTimon here is that Until Bureaucrat Run Specialised Dept. about which they have Zero Clue these will continue to occur and No Changes shall ever take place.

    May Almighty bless the Souls of Both the Pilots and the Passengers.

    May God Bless Indian Aviation and The Innocent Passengers.

  11. You hit bulls eye. Already plans are afoot to place the blame on the experienced pilot which needs to be opposed tooth and nail. The fair name of the valiant Wg cdr Deepak Vasant Sathe must not be besmirched by incompetent officials and politicians.

  12. Dear KPS Sir, once again, a brilliant write up on deep rooted dogmas that our nation has to live with, as a result of General Administrators heading the Specialised fields !! Would
    ISRO be able to launch spacecraft to Mars with this kind of leadership ?? The aviation has far left the Flying Club and turned into a driver of nation’s prosperity; it needs professional management, managers and leaders who had the courage to let go of the land beneath their feet. A simple, honest respect for those who conduct their profession in present days and the entire team that makes it happen is all that the community needs. And it is ready to face the blame, even for an error of judgement which was made in the best interests of everyone. Certainly, the DG has demonstrated his lack of understanding of basics of aviation, leadership and respect for investigation by jumping the gun and hopefully the Minister or the Government above him, should not dither in pointing one at him. Our nation has a huge crop of fine professionals to take the mantle for sure.

  13. Very well brought out Sir..

    Learning is a continuous process and it’s always better to learn from other’s mistakes especially in aviation.

    It’s high time that we have the investigating team make their findings public, even if they take years to find the reason… but it must be done with the same amount of publicity as it happens immediately after an accident.

    This might probably ensure accountability.

    Anyone and everyone commenting on specific jobs involving major skill sets such as flying an aircraft with 150 odd passengers that too under severe weather conditions has become our nature, I guess.

  14. That, unfortunate comments cannot be condoned, goes without saying.

    But if we can keep this rage for a shallow accident report (if it is so), it shall help larger cause. Introducing remedial measures can then be a distant hope.

    May the departed rest in peace.

  15. Arun Kumar, DGCA is an IAS officer. In other words, he is a generalist with no idea about his area of responsibility, appointed not because of his competence but merely because he belongs to the IAS (referred to famously as the most powerful trade union in India). He and his ilk are known for their arrogance, incompetence and lack of accountability. So chances are he was talking through his hat. However, equally likely, by blaming the dead pilots before any accident investigation has been conducted, he was trying to hide the institutional failings of Air India (and its masters, his brethren in government) that may have been responsible for the crash … factors such as bad maintenance, poor performance etc. The rot starts with these guys and the professionals get the rap.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.