April 25, 2012
As some of the victims of Friday's Bhoja Air crash were being buried, two more planes belonging to a private company, Shaheen Air, miraculously escaped disaster on Sunday.
In the first incident, the tires of a Boeing-737 carrying 127 people from Islamabad burst upon touchdown due to a landing gear malfunction.
Luckily for the passengers, the aircraft did not catch fire.
Neither the aircraft nor the airport was ready to deal with any such eventuality.
The plane's emergency exits never opened, and the fire engines took a while to arrive at the scene, only to rush back to fetch water.
The passengers disembarked through the regular door and stairs.
It is not difficult to imagine what might have happened had the plane caught fire.
In the second near miss, the fuel tank of the same company's plane, carrying 200 passengers, started leaking just as it was about to take off from the Lahore Airport en route to Mashhad in Iran.
Luckily, the airport staff spotted the leakage and stopped the flight.
What these incidents close on the heels of the Bhoja Air tragedy, as well as the earlier Airblue crash clearly show is that the Civil Aviation Authority and the concerned ministry, the defence ministry, have been too lax in implementing flight safety rules and procedures.
After the Bhoja Air tragedy, the CAA officials had insisted that required safety standards and regulations had been observed in allowing the company to restart its operations after a long break.
The claim now stands thoroughly exposed.
The tragedy was waiting to happen.
And the government had been duly warned.
Notably, more than three months ago, ie, on January 9, a Peshawar High Court bench hearing a petition filed by the relatives of the passengers killed in the July 2010 Airblue plane crash had expressed dissatisfaction over "consistent negative reports" about the performance of the national carrier, PIA, as well as private airlines.
The court had given elaborate instructions to the government on ensuring the safety of all aircraft without delay, also directing it that "this aspect of the matter must be investigated by experts to be provided by the ICA, the Consortium for Aviation System Advancement, the Airlines Pilots Associations and other safety organizations." Unfortunately, however, the court's directions remained unheeded.
And within a span of two days, first there was a fatal crash and then two close calls.
Perforce the government has finally acknowledged, albeit indirectly, that there are issues that need to be addressed.
Defence Minister Ahmad Mukhtar announced a plan of technical inspections of all private airlines' aircraft.
In view of what has happened, it would have made sense had he ordered grounding of all planes owned by the three companies involved in the tragedies and near-misses until the inspection process was completed.
But the government has no such intention.
Which, to say the least, is sad.
In any case, public trust in the safety of private airlines having been shaken completely, few are expected to take the risk of using any of the private companies' flights.
And as noted by the PHC, PIA's safety standards are not so reliable, either.
The seriousness of the situation warrants a matching resolve on the part of the government to right the wrongs.
Heads must roll.
So far it seems to be focused more on damage control than to stem the rot in the aviation industry.
The Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly, Chaudhry Nisar Ali, has already rejected the 'judicial commission' the government set up to inquire into the causes that led to the Bhoja Air disaster, saying inclusion of controversial persons in it "shows that there is something fishy and the government is trying to hide facts behind the incident." The issue is too sensitive to allow any room for doubt.
An impartial inquiry commission ought to be constituted in consultation with the Supreme Court so that public confidence in both the public and private airlines is restored, and their international reputation also improves.