SpiceJet bends all rules to fly to dangerous Pakyong; DGCA doesn't care
The dimensions and design of SpiceJet's Dash 8-Q400 planes make them totally unsuited to operate in Pakyong
The cosy relationship between SpiceJet and the Indian aviation regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) stands exposed when each day passengers and crew fly to and from the Pakyong airport built on a tabletop with hills on one side and a deep valley on the other. Whereas passengers are oblivious to the risks involved with the flight that they travel on, the crew live on a prayer that they come back safely.
Gangtok is the capital of Sikkim which is home to glaciers, alpine meadows and thousands of varieties of wildflowers. Steep paths lead to hilltop Buddhist monasteries such as Pemayangtse, which dates to the 17th century. Access to Gangtok has always been by road which takes five hours to reach from the nearest airport, which is Bagdogra. Sikkim is also of strategic importance due to its location. The construction of an airport at Pakyong near Gangtok, therefore, holds much importance, and the inauguration of the airport by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in September 2018 marked the culmination of Sikkim's dream of air connectivity.
However, this dream was short-lived since the airport could not be used for 18 months due to operational reasons. The airport features a tabletop runway set amidst high hills. The airport is at a height of 4,600 feet with a hill on one side and a steep drop on the other. The construction of the airport was an engineering challenge since the slopes had to be flattened without disturbing the earth's stability and the flow of water through the natural channels. The project cost approximately Rs 605 crore.
A SpiceJet Q400 (top) and an IndiGo ATR-72. The latter is more suited to operate in an airport like Pakyong. Image courtesy: Twitter/@flyspicejet and Wikimedia Commons/Dylan Agbagni
The airport was initially a Visual Flight Rules (VFR) airport since there was no instrument approach procedure designed which would aid the pilots to descend in less than 5 km visibility.
The width of the runway is 30 m and is suitable for an aircraft like the ATR which has a narrow wheelbase having the wheels directly under the belly of the aircraft. The same goes for the taxiway when the aircraft vacates the runway to reach the terminal building.
Visibility in the hills is not always the best to meet the requirements of the airport where the hills are so close to the runway that the pilots must at all times have the hills in sight and visually avoid them. Since visibility wasn't favourable, the airport couldn't be used for 18 months till an aircraft-based approach was designed.
Runway safety area
The video (provided below) of the approach at the Pakyong airport highlights the proximity of the hills to the aircraft, making it unsafe to fly. The aircraft terrain avoidance systems continuously warn the pilots of the unsafe situation, but despite that, SpiceJet still flies to Pakyong and the regulator allows.
The runway safety area is defined as the surface surrounding the runway prepared or suitable for reducing the risk of damage to aeroplanes in the event of an excursion from the runway. International conventions and the Indian regulator mandates that this safety area shall be 140 m wide. However, the Pakyong runway has only 80 m of the safety area. This means that in the eventuality of an aircraft going off the sides of the runway, there is inadequate protection.
Narrow runway width
The width of the runway is 30 m whereas the aircraft that is currently flown in and out of the airport is a SpiceJet Dash 8-Q400. International conventions and the Indian regulator mandates that an aircraft of such dimensions as that of a Q400 requires a 45m-wide runway. This would mean that in the eventuality of an engine failure on takeoff, the aircraft might go off the runway. The wheels of the Q400 are placed under the engines which are farther apart than say an ATR which have the wheels under the belly.
The width of the wheelbase of a Q400 is more than that of an Airbus A320. The aerodrome design manual issued by the aircraft manufacturer states that the runway width required for the Dash 8-Q400 is 45 m. The European regulator has refused to permit the manufacturer to conduct the operation of flights at airports with widths less than 45 m since the figure has been the outcome of detailed research by international bodies and safety could not be compromised.
The European regulator denying Dash8 manufacturer to operate with reduced requirements
Narrow taxiway width
The width of the taxiway is 18 m whereas the Spicejet Q400 aircraft requires a 23m-wide taxiway according to international conventions and the Indian regulator. The operator simply cautions the pilots to be careful while taxiing to avoid going off the taxiway.
Incorrectly categorised approach procedure
The aircraft-based instrument procedure is designed for CAT A/B aircraft. This category is allocated as per the approach speed of the aircraft. The SpiceJet Q400 that is flown is categorised under CAT C according to all other regulators but for reasons unknown, the Indian regulator has designated the Q400 under CAT B. This means that the aircraft might not adhere to the instrument approach requirements.
FAA's (US aviation regulator) categorisation
Manipulated visibility requirements
The visibility requirement according to Indian regulations for an approach at Pakyong with high hills in the vicinity is 4,100 m whereas the Indian regulator has approved SpiceJet to operate the Q400 even when the visibility is poorer than 4,100 m, down to an astonishing 2,400 m. The regulations do not permit the aircraft to land unless the visibility at the airport is 4,100 m or greater so that the pilots can see the runway and the hills around from a distance. Lowering the visibility requirements risks the pilots closer to the hills making flights highly unsafe.
The Pakyong airport is a vital link and a great engineering feat in terms of the challenges overcome in the construction of the airport. The airport, however, is not designed to meet the requirement of the aircraft flown by SpiceJet. It is a clear violation of international conventions and Indian regulations. It is unsafe to operate the Dash 8-Q400 aircraft as international regulators have deemed it unfit to operate at an airport with the dimensions such as that of the Pakyong airport.
The nexus of the operator and regulator stands exposed, but surprisingly, the blatant violation of regulations continues unchecked, which is alarming, especially in view of the accident of Air India Express Flight IX1344 at Calicut in August 2020. There is no agency that is willing to bell the cat and take a decision in the interest of public safety. While the Indian regulator has been infamous for suspending pilot licences at the drop of a hat even without investigation post an incident, the question that arises is: what are we waiting for in Pakyong?
(This article first appeared in avobanter.com)