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Exposed: Glaring gaps in hijack response

The hijack drama at Delhi airport caused by unruly passenger behaviour aboard Indigo flight 6E-334 may not count for much today but the post-incident evaluation has exposed....

Written by Pranab Dhal Samanta | New Delhi | Published: February 12, 2009 3:24 am

The hijack drama at Delhi airport caused by unruly passenger behaviour aboard Indigo flight 6E-334 may not count for much today but the post-incident evaluation has exposed glaring loopholes in the hijack response mechanism including the fact that hotlines at crisis committee rooms were not working.

In fact,sources said,it has now been decided to convert the three-tier hijack response structure into a two-tier one with the Director General of Civil Aviation heading the Aerodrome Committee that will function from a room to be earmarked in the Delhi ATC tower.

Until now,there existed a Central Committee

(CC) which was the link between the Aerodrome Committee (AC) and the apex Committee of Secretaries for Aircraft Hijack (COSAH) headed by the Cabinet Secretary.

The reason for this change was prompted by the post-incident evaluation which observed several communication and coordination lapses. Consider these observations by the four-member committee headed by Joint DGCA A K Chopra and comprising members from Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS) and the Intelligence Bureau,which briefed Cabinet Secretary K M Chandrashekhar on February 7:

* A need was felt to improve communication between COSAH,CC and AC: The Committee found “difficulties in communication as certain hotline equipments in all control rooms were not responding properly”.

* Other channels of communication were used which led to overlap among various agencies: Due to non-functional facilities some COSAH members,sources said,resorted to using mobile phones even to speak to the pilot. In fact,the committee has pointed out “extensive use of mobile phone between pilot and others for communication purposes”. The committee has observed that use of alternate communications like cell phones “needs to be standardized”. The only communication that was in proper state was between AC and the pilot through the ATC.

* There was time lag between stationing of the aircraft in the Isolation Bay and door opening,evacuation process of passengers and final delivery of baggage: The flight was stationed at the Isolation Bay at 5-37 p.m. and according to the committee,the communication to the pilot to open the doors went from the ATC at 7-39 p.m. The two-hour lag,sources said,was just too long and could have been reduced if the response mechanism had been more efficient.

* Many agencies indicated in the manual on hijack have not filed their SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) with BCAS for authentication and sharing on need to know basis: This led to confusion with the committee pointing out that there were “command issues at the bay,ground handling staff could not access their aircraft and a delay in providing passenger manifest to security agencies”.

* Issue of jamming cellular networks as per operational requirement needs to be revisited: With passengers using personal phones to communicate with relatives and sharing information with media,sources said,only added to the pressure and confusion. Jammers could help in this regard but a final call will have to be taken at higher levels.

* Need for video coverage of the Isolation Bay and videoconferencing facilities between various committees

Besides this,one point discussed at length with the Cabinet Secretary was the need to install a camera in the cockpit to facilitate streaming of visuals that would help determine whether the pilot was speaking under duress or not. In fact,this could never be entirely established through the entire exercise on February 1.

Later,suggestions were made to also set up alternate communication inside planes to facilitate contact with the other crew. This,sources said,would become vital in case the cockpit was compromised or the pilot was under duress.

Also,sources said,it has been decided after the committee’s report that the IB member in the AC will handle all the communication with COSAH. However,all these improvements can only be finetuned through regular drills. By now,according to the anti-hijack policy,all airports should have conducted at least one mock drill. This has so far not happened.

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