The Time Press
Opinion

The Alliance Air mid-air incident points to lacunae in our air safety protocols


Earlier this month, an Alliance Air (AA) ATR aircraft took off from Mumbai early in the morning for a one and half hour flight to Bhuj when a portion of its engine (the ATR aircraft has two engines) covering called Cowling came off at the time of take-off.

A major disaster was averted as Air Traffic Controller at Mumbai airport noticed that the Cowling had fallen off on the runway. It alerted the Bhuj-bound flight crew and also immediately got the runway cleared of the debris. The plane flew from Mumbai to Bhuj without the Cowling.

While the safety of the flight was not at risk, the falling of the Cowling could have caused damage to the associated structures of the aircraft if it had hit the aircraft while it was taking off. The engine covering could also have done foreign object damage to other aircraft landing/taking off at the Mumbai airport or it could have damaged the property on the ground at the Mumbai airport, one of the busiest airports in the country.

The incident would have affected the performance of the ATR aircraft. Since an aircraft flies best when it is aerodynamically clean, or in simple terms, the airflow passes over the body of the aircraft smoothly resulting in reduced drag and improved performance, aircraft flying with a portion of the Cowling detached can result in increased drag leading to increased fuel consumption.

Though not a risk to the safety of the 70 people on board, the incident raises questions as to how and why this incident happened. Every aircraft is cleared and pronounced safe for flight by the engineering department of the airline. This is done before every flight. Further, the flight crew is required to carry out a walk-around inspection of the aircraft to ascertain any visual damage.

A part of the Cowling falling off points to poor maintenance being done by the airline. It is quite possible that after the inspection of the engines, the engineer attending to the aircraft failed to latch the Cowling properly leading to the incident. Alliance Air, which was operating this flight, is a subsidiary of Air India. AA primarily operates smaller aircraft like the ATRs on regional routes. While Air India has now been sold to the Tatas, AA continues to be under government control. AA’s fleet consists of ATR aircraft which are turbo-prop aircraft. The airline has one ATR 42-320 which seats 48 passengers and five ATR 72-600 which seat 70 passengers each.

Though nothing serious happened on 9 February with the ATR safely reaching Bhuj, the consequences of this incident could have been disastrous. One of the worst incidents of foreign object damage was in 2000 in Paris when a Concorde sucked in some rubber from the runway leading to a fire. The plane crashed killing all those on board the supersonic jet. Three years later the aircraft was retired from service globally.

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