Coming home to mayhem: A portrait of Mumbai Airport
"Ladies and Gentlemen, we will need to brief you about some special circumstances concerning our landing today at Mumbai airport," a voice announced over the PA system.
I was wrapped up in the in-flight entertainment on board Cathay Pacific flight 751 from Bangkok to Mumbai. The voice interrupted the programming forcing me to listen up. It was the captain. Special circumstances? What did he mean? Were we in some sort of trouble?
"As some of you already know, Mumbai airport offers us enough runway for takeoff, however we have only limited landing distance available due to what we call a displaced threshold," he began.
Now this I knew. Five years ago, I became part of India's doddering aviation industry. As a pilot, I had the misfortune of operating into many of my country's chancy airports, where every arrival or departure involves testing the limits and flirting with danger. Mumbai airport is one of India's most dangerous airports. That day, the airport was more unsafe than usual. The voice explained why.
"Our available landing distance has been further reduced due to some work in progress on the runway. Hence, our landing will be a bit more aggressive. We will be using our engines, our brakes, and all we've got to bring this airplane to a halt in the distance available," the captain said, uneasiness perceptible in his tone of voice.
Even under perfect operating conditions, landing a jet is tricky business. Pushing the safety envelope compounds an inherently difficult phase of flight.
We were in for a rough landing. Any slip-up could spell disaster. I watched my fellow passengers cringe in trepid anticipation. Seatbelts clicked into place. The cabin became eerily quiet.
The landing was loud. We lurched forward as the aircraft strained against full reverse thrust -- necessary to facilitate the hot stop. Aggressive braking ensued. Then the scenery stopped whizzing by, and we finally slowed to a halt. Everyone heaved a huge sigh of relief.
"Welcome to Mumbai," the captain announced, sounding refreshed.
Music to our ears.
My experience that evening was an indicator that Indian aviation is still flying dangerously low on safety, and if the authorities do not act expeditiously to remedy existing safety lacunae, tragedy will be inevitable.
Three years ago, the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations (IFALPA) -- the world's largest body of professional aviators -- downgraded Mumbai's Sahar airport to Code Red. IFALPA's color code system signifies varying levels of deficiencies in infrastructure that contribute to flight safety hazards. Mumbai airport was then a step away from the Black Star -- the infamous epithet conferred by the IFALPA on the world's worst airports. Such airports are at risk of losing valuable business.
What makes Sahar so inadequate from a safety standpoint? Consider some appalling facts about India's busiest airport.
The Week, a national newsmagazine, recently reported that the protective casings of landing lights on the runway were being used as frying pans by slum dwellers residing along the airport boundary wall. The bars on which the approach lights are mounted reportedly serve a recreational purpose. Kids tie their swings to these bars, thereby converting this crucial area of the airport into a jungle gym.
Down-and-outers backed by local politicians have unlawfully taken over more than 150 acres of airport land. These encroachments have necessitated a displaced threshold, compelling airplanes to land further down the runway, thereby shortening available landing distance -- one of our constraints that evening.
In addition to these problems, the authorities have made matters worse with their brazen disregard for international safety norms. A decade ago, the Airports Authority of India embarked on a multimillion-dollar Air Traffic Control modernization project in collaboration with U.S. giant Raytheon Electronic Systems. A sophisticated ATC facility was constructed near the auxiliary runway at Mumbai airport. According to International Civil Aviation Organization standards, no building within 5 km of a runway must exceed a height of 150 feet. The tower and technical building are built in a zone where the maximum height of an obstacle must not exceed 24 feet. The structure looms magnificently above the landscape at a stellar height of 187 feet, violating norms by 163 feet. A government-appointed committee recommended that the tower be demolished and relocated to a parking lot near the international terminal. As is invariably the case in India, the committee's report was perhaps relegated to the trash heaps. The edifice still stands in outright transgression of international standards.
Safety is not the only problem with Mumbai airport. A February 2000 Non-Resident Indian online poll revealed that a staggering 89 percent of NRIs were displeased with services at airports in India, particularly the major international airports -- Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai. My own experience is a case in point. On deplaning, I rapidly discovered that the terminal's air-conditioning system was not operational. I took off my jacket and prepared to endure the sweltering Mumbai weather. To add to my discomfort, the escalator was also out of commission, forcing me to lug my suitcases down to immigration while trying not to topple down the stairs. There, I was greeted by a snaking queue and some rather unfriendly officials who seemed determined to complicate what should be a fairly simple process for Indian nationals. Customs, as always, was an ordeal.
Simply put, the two main obstacles to efficient passenger processing at Mumbai airport are infrastructure (or lack of it), and courteous and well-informed service staff. Clearly, infrastructure development has not kept pace with rapidly increasing international aircraft movements. This point has been made time and again, however, besides emphasizing the obvious, there have been no efforts worth a mention to rectify the situation.
There is a reason for this apparent slothfulness on the part of the authorities. For a long time, air travel in India has been considered a luxury. High airfares have kept air transportation out of the reach of the average Indian. Therefore, spending money on airports becomes a politically unpopular exercise as it may be construed as lavish spending on infrastructure used only by the rich. Such thinking is not in India's best interests. Indian airports, particularly the international airports, need to be viewed from a different angle. They need to be treated as part of India's overall business and tourist infrastructure, and given the appropriate levels of investment. Successive Indian governments have professed their commitment to sprucing up infrastructure at international airports, however when it comes to matching words and actions, India's wayward politicos have fallen terribly short.
So, while politicians elegantly reiterate the apparent, make grandiose promises, and deliver polished performances to the international community, replete with charm and self-depreciating humor, India's major airports languish.
At times, however, the mayhem at India's international airports seems apt -- a mirror image of the ordered chaos that is characteristic of life in the world's second most populous nation.