Air India Mangalore accident highlights need for an independent accidents investigator

Ever since the unfortunate crash of Air India Express’ Boeing 737-800 VT-AXV at Mangalore Bajpe, I have been inundated by requests across the world to comment and even speculate about the crash and possible causes.

Over the last few days we see all kinds of high energy stories in the media, be it speculating on reasons for the crash, or making a mountain out of a molehill. In a headlong rush for TRPs TV channels made a huge issue about the “miraculous escape” due to the runway incursion by IndiGo airlines at Mumbai.

By their measure, I have “miraculously escaped” at least eight times during my last 20 years of flying. May be I am on my ninth and last life, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

As a responsible aviation analyst, I have always advocated shunning speculation on reasons for air accidents. It does great dis-service to the families of the victims, the memories of the lost, and to efforts of those who remain.

Accidents are almost never a case of one single reason or major failure, but rather a chain of several minor reasons or failures. Only a proper investigation will lead to the true cause. The two black boxes have been recovered. Preliminary analysis of the Cockpit Voice Recorder and Digital Flight Data Recorder are only two weeks away. Let us wait for the full truth.

While we are waiting, let us bow our heads in memory of those who perished one year ago on the night of May 31, 2009, in the crash of Air France AF-447. A crash where the two black boxes have still not yet been recovered, and cause still undetermined, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars and countless hours already spent, and efforts that are still underway.

I am confident in Indian aviation and firmly believe it is the safest means of transport. This is the first fatal crash of Air India since the 1985 Kanishka bombing.

However, there seems to be this paranoia about secrecy at various Ministries responsible for transportation be it Civil Aviation, Railways, or Shipping. If we recall major transportation accidents over the last one year. Very little information has been publicly disclosed as to the reasons for the accidents and virtually no information is available on the much more important corrective action required and taken. Just as we have forgotten AF-447 these other accidents no longer feature in our memory.

It is time India has an independent investigating body like the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) or the UK Air Accidents Investigations Board (AAIB) or the Canadian Transportation Accident Investigation and Safety Board (TSB) or the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB). These agencies are completely independent of the regulators like the US Federal Aviation Administration or UK Civil Aviation Authority, policy makers and service providers. These boards investigate accidents and publicly disclose causal information along with suggested corrective action.

In India I do not know who the regulator and inspector is for rail and shipping, but at least for the air we have the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, however air accident investigations are also under the DGCA.

The DGCA is a fine organisation, and I can personally attest to the upstanding nature and integrity of Dr. Zaidi. However, a separation between investigation and regulation is a must. If the investigation reveals, requires and justifies it; an investigator has to be able to criticise a regulator (DGCA) or even a policy maker (Ministry) and require changes.

Something the current system just does not provide for or do.

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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