Thursday, April 26, 2012

Making aviation industry accountable

It is tragic that a country this size — of 180 million people, with a reasonably large aviation industry and a history that is the oldest in the region — has no aviation lawyers to speak of. This when the industry is no longer limited to just the state-owned airline, but there are other players involved. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), an autonomous public sector body operating under the Ministry of Defence, has no legal process, case law returns and no history of litigation. 

Part of this of course has to do with the underdeveloped field of tort in Pakistan. It has been 13 months since the Air Blue disaster, but there are no class action lawsuits yet. Had we been a ‘civilised’ country, officials of the CAA and the airline in question would have been hauled to court, and someone would have been made accountable. But not so in Pakistan, where civilised norms are and will remain a distant dream, primarily because our priorities lie elsewhere and the will of God remains an easy scapegoat for our own misdeeds and irresponsible conduct.

The legal question of accountability should arise not after an air disaster but whenever an airline defaults on any of its safety obligations under law. In Pakistan however, there are several near misses repeatedly and no one is taken to task. In 1999, the roof of a PIA plane collapsed just as it was about to take off from New York’s JFK Airport. It would have been an unprecedented disaster in aviation history had the plane taken off before the said collapse. Yet no PIA officials were fired and no legal action was taken by anyone concerned. Allah nay bohat karam kiya (Allah blessed us) was the standard official answer. After all, we make sure the ritualistic prayer is said by airhostess before every flight. To hell with safety regulations! The conventional wisdom, “Trust in God but tie your camel”, has no meaning for Pakistan’s airline industry. The doublethink — to use Orwell’s pithy little word — is so pervasive that at times we forget the laws of physics altogether (i.e. if a plane is not airworthy, it will plummet). 

As far as the Bhoja Air crash goes, numerous theories are being forwarded — like lightning striking the airplane on its final approach to Benazir Bhutto International Airport. Lightning striking airplanes is a relatively common occurrence and airliners are designed to withstand it. To try to pin it on ‘force majeure’ or an act of God is to evade responsibility. The airliner did not crash because it was struck by lightning, if indeed it was struck by lightning. It crashed because of human error. What remains to be determined is whether it was a pilot error or some safety errors by inspectors.

Bhoja Air tragedy is not going to be the last one if this sorry state of affairs is allowed to continue. One must also remember the two-seater crash in Model Town a few months ago. In our country legitimate litigation — as arising out of untimely deaths of people due to negligence of an airline employee, such as the pilot — is looked down upon. The result is that airlines are not held accountable for their actions. The absence of the threat of litigation means relaxed attitudes towards the safety and well being of passengers.

The CAA — consisting of former pilots, ex-air force officials and lazy bureaucrats — has failed repeatedly to set down and enforce intelligible safety guidelines for smooth operation of air traffic as well as safety. Hardly any safety inspections and due diligence is carried out by the CAA. How did a plane, 27 years old, like Bhoja Air’s 737-200, which had been allegedly reported for instrument malfunction, get into the air? Why or how was the pilot cleared for landing in such rough weather? This points to negligence of the local ground staff and airport. Is there going to be a public inquiry into the crash, which will hold someone accountable or will we simply shelve this as we have shelved air crashes — big and small — throughout our history? 

The first thing we have to do is adopt European or North American safety standards for aviation in this country. This means mandatory adoption of the latest technology, i.e. wide area augmentation systems coupled with global positioning system along with the inertial navigation system built into planes and ground aids such as the latest VORTACAN systems as back up. Similarly, a ground proximity warning system for flights must also be a mandatory feature. There should be no flying without the aid of these instruments and harsh legal penalties should be devised for default on these counts. Training of pilots and ground crew should be given priority. It should not be assumed that ex-air force men are somehow trained to handle commercial airliners in any capacity. In fact, ex-air force pilots should undergo greater psychological training where their urge to take risks should be minimised. Over-confident pilots with overflowing testosterone and a self-belief not compensated by any extraordinary skill should be prosecuted for any digression from official guidelines. The responsibility for the lives of ordinary citizens should be entrusted only to the most psychologically stable and skillful pilots. All this should be incorporated in regulatory law governing the aviation industry.

Nothing less will do or we should consider dispensing with air travel altogether. After all, we banned kite flying because it caused deaths. Why should the same principle not apply to flying? Outlandish perhaps, but that is what we have been reduced to as a nation and as a state.

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