The news of the horrifying crash of Air India Express Flight 1344 in Kozhikode Airport on 08th August 2020 has attracted significant attention to the problems that the Airport has faced over the course of the last decade. As a native of the city, I have some knowledge regarding these issues. However I have no expertise. Therefore this is merely a limited commentary on the Kozhikode Airport.
Kozhikode Airport Runway
The Kozhikode International Airport is actually located more than half an hour (28 kms) from the city in what is actually Karipur in Malappuram District. The Airport has progressively declined in the past decade or so, especially with the new Kannur Airport and renovations at the Kochi Airport and the lack of infrastructure development.
The Kozhikode Arirport’s problems are primarily due to the tabletop runway which makes it extremely hard to extend the runway. Table Top runways are those which are located on top of a hill with one or more ends dropping off into a valley. This makes the landing extremely difficult. A lot of attention was centered around table top airports after the Air India Express Flight 812 from Dubai to Mangalore crashed on landing at Mangalore, killing 158 passengers in 2010..After the inquiry report was submitted, the Mangalore Airport’s sloping terrain was raised to the same level as the runway.
Kozhikode Airport also faced scrutiny as it had a tabletop runway. This led to the runway being recarpeted, and the Runway End Safety Area (RESA) was increased from 90 meters to 240 metres. This however reduced the length of the runway to 2,700 metres from 2,850 meters.
Due to safety concerns, wide bodied aircraft were banned at the airport, causing the Airport’s traffic and passenger outflow and inflow to decline. This was subsequently lifted in 2018, with mitigation measures in place:
#Calicut airport to become operational soon. DGCA has given the final approval today on commencing operations of A330 and B-777 wide-body aircraft of Saudi Arabian airlines in strict compliance with the mitigation measures to ensure the safety of operations. pic.twitter.com/GS5C2ZNKXg — Suresh Prabhu (@sureshpprabhu) August 9, 2018
This was as a result of political parties, passenger associations and the Malabar Chamber of Commerce raising concerns regarding the declining importance given to the Airport by Central and State Governments, especially in view of the Kannur Airport becoming operational at the same time. The Malabar Development Forum has (rightly, in my opinion) accused the State Government of neglecting the Kozhikode Airport in favour of the Kannur Airport.
[Should be noted that the forum has links to the UDF, the opposition front in Kerala]
Not a ‘Wide Bodied Aircraft’
The Air India Express Flight 1344 that crash landed in Kozhikode is not a wide bodied Aircraft, it is a narrow Bodied Boeing 737-8HG(SFP) or Boeing 737 Next Generation Aircraft. Therefore, the permissions given to wide bodied Aircraft does not seem to be the issue here. The technicalities of why the flight crashed is beyond my expertise, but it should be stated that the Kozhikode Region was witnessing heavy rain and most likely lower visibility as well.
Due to the Airport being located in a hilly region and due to weather patterns, the Runway at Kozhikode requires regular maintenance, which seems to have not been carried out. The DGCA had even issued a notice in this regard in 2019. This would certainly have contributed to the incident.
A picture of Neglect
Kozhikode Airport has long suffered from neglect from the Airport Authority of India as well as the neglect of successive State Governments. A planned expansion of Kozhikode Airport was made when the Airport was made an International Airport in 2006, which was accelerated in 2007-08. While subsequent governments have repeated the sentiment, the inaction has continued. The proposal includes an expansion of the runway and a new International terminal.
The current Government assured that land would be acquired for the expansion of the Airport,but no action has been taken by the State Government.
In fact, there was no mention of the Kozhikode Airport’s planned expansion in the 2019-20 Budget:
No mention of the Kozhikode Airport at all in the Budget 2019-20. Also KIIFB returns – 50 mentions in the Budget. Dr. Isaac continues his faux literature love by quoting Kumaranasan. — Ananth Krishna Subhalaksmy (@Ananth_Krishna_) January 31, 2019
While Kozhikode Airport has been listed for Privatisation, it is not easily viable for commercial management. The Airport’s expansion plans need to be put in motion for the Airport to be viable in the future.
Plans for the Second Airport
The Kozhikode Karipur Airport has faced significant hurdles due to the geographic constraints and the other issues with the region, including the interference of locals in the running of establishments outside the Airport, that has led to calls for a second Airport. The plans are for a greenfield airport in Thiruvvambadi outside the city, however the plans failed to take off due to the lack of support from the State Government for the proposal. This was despite Malappuram, Kozhikode and Wayanad all coming together for support the new Airport.
Does Kozhikode require a second Airport, however? This is also after taking into consideration that the Kannur Airport has started functioning as well? Kozhikode is set to grow exponentially as an urban agglomeration in the coming years, and is already the twentieth largest Urban agglomeration in India. As a Kozhikode Native, I am more than in favour of a second Airport, and due to political considerations, it might even take a spot in the manifestos of parties in the 2021 Assembly Elections. Practical considerations may however limit the possibility of a second Airport.
Kozhikode Airport has not been given enough attention from the AAI or the State Government. The reasons for the crash will only be fully explained after a detailed enquiry is conducted; it would be premature to blame the airport authorities or the DGCA. We can hope the Kozhikode Airport is able to carry out activities like before after conducting runway safety improvements
Special Thanks to Aishwarya Ajayan for editing.