WHETHER a longer runway at Kozhikode could have averted Friday’s crash may only be known once the investigation is over but the demand to extend it has been a pressing — and a long-standing one. In the accident, in which 18 people were killedand around 100 injured, the Air India Express plane overshot the tabletop runway and fell 35 feet down a slope, the impact breaking it in two. Way back in 2017, the Airports Authority of India (AAI), which manages the airport, had firmed up plans to extend Kozhikode’s 2750-m runway by 800 m and was awaiting allocation of land by the Kerala government.
However, sources said, land was not acquired by the state citing high costs and local resistance. Tabletop runways are a challenge, especially during rain, when aircraft may need longer distances to slow down because of speed, reduced friction, payload and the risk of a skid.
“Given that there is a gorge at the end of the runway, extension would have required additional land and building of flyover-like structures. We asked for land from the state government but they told us the land acquisition cost is very high,” an AAI official told The Sunday Express.
The need for this was strongly underlined by former Former Kerala bureaucrat E K Bharat Bhushan, who fast-tracked the completion of the Kozhikode airport in 1988. In fact, in 2012, as Director-General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), he threatened to shut down operations at the same airport over safety concerns.
Speaking to The Sunday Express, he said that while multiple factors could have led to the mishap, Friday’s crash landing should “convince” people of the need to extend the runway.
This is echoed by State Higher Education Minister K T Jaleel, who is from Malappuram in which the airport falls. He said he hoped this would be an “eye-opener” and people would understand the need for land.
“We made an earnest effort to acquire land but it invited protests,” admitted Jaleel. “We hope to acquire at least 100 acres even though the Airport Authority of India has demanded 300 acres. People ask why should this airport be developed when we have three other airports in the state.’’
Local IUML legislator T V Ibrahim said land could be acquired if the government is determined. “They have acquired land for the national highway and GAIL pipeline. Why can’t they do it for the airport,’’ he said.
“I am from Malabar and the issue was close to my heart…(when) the survey team from AAI had gone (to identify the land), they were manhandled,” said Bhushan. A compromise was reached to extend the “runway end safety area” (RESA).
“RESA is an area at the end of the runway where the plane can sink in if it overshoots. Unfortunately, in yesterday’s accident, the speed of the aircraft was such that it went past the RESA, smashing the perimeter wall,” Bhushan said.
In 2018, the AAI extended the RESA at Kozhikode airport from 90 m, which is the minimum stipulated RESA length by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), to 240 m at both ends, recommended for the Kozhikode airport given its tabletop conditions.This, too, came at a cost.
A senior DGCA official told The Sunday Express that the extension of RESA cut the runway’s length by about 100 m in total.
Incidentally, airports across the world either built on tabletops or with water bodies at either end of a runway, are usually equipped with an “engineered material arresting system” (EMAS), which is meant to slow down the aircraft after it has overshot the runway.
The committee that probed the 2010 Air India Express crash at Mangalore airport directed AAI to increase the RESA length to 240 m at critical airports including Kozhikode, and wherever RESA was less than 240 m, it called for installing EMAS. But given that Kozhikode extended RESA to 240 m, the EMAS was not installed.