Air India Boeing 747 fire at Mumbai: Scaremongering by private TV channels

Television news media coverage of aircraft incidents and accidents in India is normally incomplete and poor at best, liberally dosed with sensationalism that would make a Bollywood scriptwriter proud.

The recent fuel leak and fire incident involving Air India Boeing 747-437 VT-ESM at Mumbai airport brought out the worst of India’s still nascent private television news channels.

The real version as reported by AVHerald a site which accepted by most aviation experts as an authoritative source on aviation safety. Observe this is classified as an INCIDENT not even an ACCIDENT.

An Air India Boeing 747-400, registration VT-ESM performing flight AI-829 from Mumbai (India) to Riyadh (Saudi Arabia) with 213 passengers and 15 crew, was during push back, when engine #1 (PW4056, outboard left) caught fire. Passengers and crew were evacuated via slides. Arriving emergency services were able to contain and quickly extinguish the fire. 21 people received minor injuries during the evacuation. The injured were treated at the airport for scratches and bruises.

Amateur videos show a massive fire with flames from the ground up to several meters above the fuselage. The origin of the fire is believed to be at the fuel shut off valve below the #1 engine at the engine pylon.

According to India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) the airplane had undergone maintenance due to a fuel leak on engine #1 before the airplane was released for flight AI-829.

It was shocking to the see the over-sensationalised reporting by the private television news channels, led by CNN-IBN (collaboration of CNN and TV18), and TimesNow (collaboration of Times of India group and Reuters).

In their blind quest for ratings, these two channels resorted to reporting one can only describe as scandalous. Their mis-statements of fact, lack of sobriety, and scaremongering bordered on libellous, most certainly emotional gouging and sensationalism run amok.

Probably the worst coverage was by CNN-IBN. Watch these three videos. Video 1, Video 2, Video 3.

Despite the amateur video clearly showing no emergency slides being deployed on the left of the aircraft, the CNN-IBN anchors led by senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai keeping harping on the “safety failure” of deploying the left side slides.

May be Mr. Sardesai needs to get some eyewear which will enable him to see the facts on the video his own channel is broadcasting. He should also probably get some logic which would dictate that if the fire was as horrendous as made out by his channel then any slide deployment on the left side where the fire was, would lead to their burning and destruction.

The CNN-IBN team repeatedly tried to savage Jitendra Bhargava of Air India with these wrong assumptions, who despite these provocations kept his cool and stated the facts.

The TimesNow news channel was not too far behind. In this video a TimesNow reporter named Rahul started harping that passengers “should thank their lucky stars” (2:30 in to the video) and “had this plane taken off it would have led to a massive massive tragedy” (towards the end of the video).

Since your lack of knowledge demonstrates Mr. Rahul, please be informed that any commercial airliner is required to be able to take-off with one engine failed, as demonstrated in this video showing a Monarch Airlines Boeing 757 which lost one of its two engines right at take-off at Manchester airport. There are some exceptions to this rule especially with regards to ETOPS aircraft, but that is too technical for the purposes of this article.

Further more, all pilots train in simulators, rather intensively, for exactly such scenarios — engine fires on take-off, loss of engine at take-off, landing with failed engines, fires, etc.

For TimesNow to make an outrageous statement “had this plane taken off it would have led to a massive massive tragedy” is reflective of the channel’s ignorance of the subject, a disregard for quality, and questionable integrity at the very least.

Both the TimesNow anchor and the reporter Mr. Rahul try to make an issue of out of the fact that this aircraft is 16 years old. 16 years is a very average age for a Boeing 747-400. I am reasonably sure that these media persons would step on board a 30 year old aircraft without a qualm since they will be ignorant of it.

Mr. Rahul — always load your mind with facts before shooting your mouth off.

Both CNN-IBN and TimesNow followed the norms of aviation reporting of other TV channels and most media, in India. As the editor of a major media group told me, reporting is done by jack of all trade reporters who do not know the first thing of an aircraft, even less of procedures and capabilities, and all in an environment of shrinking budgets and massive corporate pressure.

Image from and copyright of The Hindu
In their uncontrolled rush to sensationalise the incident and make Mount Everest out of a grain of sand, the channels completely overlooked a potential safety issue. The main operational runway of Mumbai airport 27 is to the right side of the taxiway where the aircraft was stopped. With passengers being evacuated on the right side what happened to flight operations? The passengers would have to move a significant distance away from the aircraft which is towards the main runway. The wake turbulence generated by large wide bodied aircraft are huge, capable of throwing vehicles around. Were flight operations suspended? How did airport operations ensure that passengers escaping a burning plane were not put in to further jeopardy. Sadly, these channels never covered this subject that really matters.

Also disturbing is that many of these TV channels quote “expert sources” and still make highly irrational statements which makes one wonder if their sources are the janitor at some government office. With their pontificated mis-truths and reporting of facts in an imbalanced manner to suit their sensationalist agenda, we are unsure if we are watching the news or some Bollywood soap opera.

Television channels need to follow the higher standards demonstrated by their colleagues in the print media. Newspaper coverage while still not fully desirable is far more mature, balanced, and sober in comparison to their TV counterparts. Having collaborated with global superstars like CNN and Reuters respectively, it is astonishing that both CNN-IBN and TimesNow do not offer viewers a superior and balanced coverage.

One truth is certain, watching both these channels is injurious to the truth.

About Devesh Agarwal

A electronics and automotive product management, marketing and branding expert, he was awarded a silver medal at the Lockheed Martin innovation competition 2010. He is ranked 6th on Mashable's list of aviation pros on Twitter and in addition to Bangalore Aviation, he has contributed to leading publications like Aviation Week, Conde Nast Traveller India, The Economic Times, and The Mint (a Wall Street Journal content partner). He remains a frequent flier and shares the good, the bad, and the ugly about the Indian aviation industry without fear or favour.

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