My father is a frequent flier and generally, a calm one. But Mangalore airport has always terrified him. And now his fears have been justified. It’s the airport that will be forever linked to one of the worst crashes India has seen.
A crash that left just eight alive of the total 166 passengers and crew. The news is full of personal stories of those killed: the son on his way to attend his father’s funeral; the couple and their daughter excited to attend a family wedding; families visiting their relatives. Their bodies were shown on tv - burnt beyond recognition but still held in place by their seatbelts to the seats found amongst the wreckage in the surrounding countryside.
Back in the 1990s, when this runway was first proposed, a few voices spoke against it. Arthur Pereira was one of them.
“I am shocked but not surprised. We pleaded with the authorities not to build this tabletop runway. But no one cared then.”
Pereira is a member of the Bangalore based Environment Support Group, and the Vimana Nildhana Vistarana Virodhi Samithi or Anti airport expansion committee in Mangalore. He filed two petitions- both in the Karnataka State High Court as well as the Supreme Court - claiming that the proposed runway did not meet International Civil Aviation Authority standards.
He claimed that the terrain around the airport was too hilly and the runway too short. Protestors claimed that in times of emergency, it was difficult to land on the runway, and in case of a botched landing attempt, there was no room for the pilot to try to take off again.
“We even mentioned that if there is an accident then the flight will fall 80 to 100 metres into the cliff and that’s exactly what has happened.”
The petitions were dismissed by the courts and Pereira and other protestors were assured that the runway would be built in accordance to ICAO standards. But Pereira says that these norms were never met.
“The airport authorities took this whole issue very casually. They say ‘35000 flights have landed here and this is just one case.’ But 158 lives is not a small number.”
He points out that the access roads - a must for every runway - were never built. A rescue team has to reach an accident site within three minutes. In this case it took them ten times longer because they could only use narrow rural roads to reach the crash site. And a lot of time was wasted clearing the carts and vehicles which were blocking these small roads before the emergency vehicles could get through.
Pereira and his team now plan to file damage suits against the authorities for not complying with the basic runway design and emergency rules.
“This is going to be our tribute to those who’ve lost their lives. We will assist the affected families to initiate criminal charges against all those key decision makers who flouted the basic norms.”