Much-Awarded Mumbai International Airport May Be in Violation of Safety Norms

Passenger safety substandard at Mumbai Airport, petitioner tell court.

A man walks through the newly built Terminal 2 of the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, operated by GVK Power & Infrastructure Ltd., in Mumbai. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)
A man walks through the newly built Terminal 2 of the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, operated by GVK Power & Infrastructure Ltd., in Mumbai. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

There is a disaster waiting to happen at the Mumbai International Airport Ltd., according to a public interest litigation filed in the Bombay High Court, which comes up for hearing on August 31. The petition filed by lawyer and activist Yeshwanth Shenoy in 2014 states that over 200 illegal structures restrict aircraft movement, while a non-frangible jet blast shield, and a 20-metre tall building are located in a crucial area vis-a-vis aircraft take-off and landing.

On August 10, a division bench of the high court reprimanded the Airports Authority of India and the Directorate General of Civil Aviation , for apathy towards passenger safety, and the lack of preventive action.

High-Rise Buildings on the Rise

The building in question, built by the Chauhan group in 2011, lies within the critical approach climb surface area of the main runway 27 of the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport where planes typically fly at low altitudes, either while landing or during a take-off. The building is located 668 metres from the runway and stands 20 metres tall. The petition claims that a height of 13 metres was considered safe for a building located so, by the then Deputy General Manager, Airports Authority of India (No Objection Certificate Cell).

The appellate body for height clearances revised this to 20 metres in early 2011. The DGM immediately raised concerns and a meeting was convened with representatives from the AAI, DGCA and MIAL on April 29, 2011.

According to the minutes of the meeting, which BloombergQuint has accessed, it was decided that the danger posed by this 20-metre-tall building was indeed real, and that a notification to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), prescribing a safe angle for take-off and landing in view of the obstacle, would resolve the issue.

The notification of a change in the take-off gradient – as the angle for take-off is called in airline terminology – would have ensured that pilots were aware of a permanent obstacle, during take-off, and that they would have to approach it differently.

A Pending Notification

That notification has now been pending for five years, and according to the petition, is a breach on the part of MIAL since India is a signatory to the ICAO convention. The convention says that it is the responsibility of the state to publish deviations from international standards, and make pilots aware of potential hazards.

Since the privatisation of airports, it has become the duty of airport operators – MIAL in this case – to inform the Airports Authority of India of such deviations, which are then to be published by them in their Aeronautical Information Publication (AIP). This AIP, according to ICAO, is essential to air navigation.

The petitioner Shenoy, while speaking to BloombergQuint, cites the 1993 crash of Air India Flight IC 491 at the Aurangabad Airport, that claimed 55 lives, to bolster his point on the kind of danger this building poses for flights going in and out of the Mumbai Airport. The landing gear of the aircraft coming into contact with a moving lorry caused the crash.

Another issue that compromises passenger safety, according to the petition, is the unbreakable nature of the jet blast shield located at the end of runway 29 at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. These shields must mandatorily be breakable, in the event that a plane overshoots the runway and collides into them, thereby minimising the risk of a fire.

The 2010 crash of Air India Express Flight IX 812 in Mangalore, that resulted in the loss of 155 lives, could have been avoided had the shield in that case been frangible, Shenoy says, “The blaze was a result of the plane colliding into the shield which didn’t give way. We have not learnt from our mistakes.”

Repeated calls and emails sent to MIAL over the course of a week, seeking a clarification on why this notification had not been made, remain unanswered. Airports Authority of India refused to comment on the matter stating that it was sub judice.

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