Saturday, April 21, 2012

Daily Times Editorial April 22, 2012

A tragedy foretold? The crash on Friday of a Bhoja Air flight from Karachi to Islamabad when it was on its approach for landing has shaken the entire country. All 127 people on board, including six crewmembers, were killed. That tragedy refreshed memories of the July 2010 crash of an Air Blue flight that crashed into the Margalla Hills, killing all 152 people on board. As in the Margalla crash, the only small mercy was that the Bhoja Air flight fell in relatively open ground, inflicting damage on houses but without any loss of life on the ground. The rescue operation swung into action fairly promptly, but was hampered by a traffic jam restricting access to the site. Also, the rescue teams seemed poorly equipped and far from coordinated in their efforts. Not that they had much to do except collect charred bodies and scattered body parts to be transported to a cold storage hired quickly for the purpose of keeping the remains, since the mortuaries at PIMS and other hospitals were likely to be overwhelmed. That at least was a lesson learnt from the Margalla crash almost two years ago, although not much else seems to have changed in the intervening period as far as the readiness of emergency rescue services is concerned. Tearful relatives of the victims thronged the airports in Karachi and Islamabad, but according to reports, despite the fact that the aviation authorities had set up information rooms in both airports, Bhoja Air’s counter at Karachi airport remained shut, much to the irritation of distraught people seeking news of their loved ones. PIA has offered free passage for one family member of each victim from Karachi to Islamabad on a special flight. The president, prime minister have expressed grief and ordered every conceivable effort for the comfort of the stricken families, while ordering a thorough probe into the crash. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh too sent a message of sorrow and condolences. Speculations are rife as to the cause/s of the crash, with rumours ranging from a lightning strike to bad weather to unknown technical problems. Perhaps a rush to judgment should be avoided until the results of the inquiry are in. Fortunately the black box has been recovered and its data may yield clues to what exactly happened in the final moments before the plane went down. Bhoja Air has a chequered history. It was closed down in 2000 by the Civil Aviation Authority because of financial difficulties. It announced the revival of its operations just last month. The ill-fated flight was its inaugural flight to Islamabad. Questions are being raised in the aftermath of the tragedy about the viability, technical and financial solidity and credibility of Bhoja Air. Some sections of the media have gone so far as to assert that political pressure or favouritism was at play in allowing Bhoja Air to resurrect itself when it did not have an adequate fleet (the crashed Boeing 737-200 was reportedly 27 years old) and proper technical, maintenance and safety checks according to international procedure and standards were not carried out. These are aspects of the tragedy that need to be probed thoroughly. As this example and the plethora of stories lately about the national flag carrier PIA show, there is something rotten in the state of our aviation regulatory and maintenance systems. Every other day there are reports about flight cancellations, delays, near disasters that are slowly but steadily eroding the idea, at least in Pakistan, that flying is still the safest way to travel. PIA has suffered strictures abroad for failing maintenance and safety standards. What a fall for our once proud national carrier. With the opening up of the skies to private airlines, what was needed was a strengthened regime of regulation and monitoring to ensure safe and trouble-free operations. Instead, like much else in the country, it seems that this area of national life too has suffered a grievous decline. The inquiry into the crash will be eagerly awaited, not the least because the Air Blue Margalla crash inquiry fizzled out without any clear-cut conclusions or lessons learnt. But in addition to adducing the circumstances that led to the Bhoja Air crash, the entire machinery of civil aviation needs a thorough overhaul, especially standards of regulation, maintenance and monitoring of all airlines.

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