A plea filed in the Supreme Court sought to know why the Engineered Mass Arresting System (EMAS) was not installed in airports in Mangaluru and Kozhikode.

Air India express flight crash at the Calicut International Airport
Money Kozhikode Air Crash Wednesday, September 16, 2020 - 18:39

The Supreme Court has sought a response from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation and the Civil Aviation Ministry to a plea seeking the installation of Engineered Mass Arresting System (EMAS) in vulnerable airports across India, including those at Mangaluru and Kozhikode following the Air India Express crash at the Calicut International Airport on August 7.

Engineered Mass Arresting System is a technology that arrests overrunning of an aircraft. According to the Federal Aviation Administration in the US, this system uses crushable material that is placed at the end of a runway to stop an aircraft from overshooting the runway. The tires of the aircraft sink into the lightweight material, which is usually made of concrete blocks and the aircraft decelerates as it rolls through it.

The plea, filed by 85-year-old Rajen Mehta, also seeks an inquiry as to why EMAS was not installed in airports in Mangaluru and Kozhikode despite specific knowledge of its utility and seeks action to be taken against officials responsible.The petitioner was represented by Shohit Chaudhry, Advocate-on-Record, Supreme Court of India

On August 7, an Air India Express flight from Dubai carrying 190 passengers including six crew members, crashed after skidding off the tabletop runway of the Calicut International Airport. The plane fell 35 feet into a valley, and then crashed into a wall killing 19 people.

Rajen, a mechanical engineer who has worked with a manufacturer of Aircraft Arresting Systems in Sweden in the past, has said in his plea that an inquiry after the Mangaluru crash in 2010 recommended that systems like the EMAS should be installed on the runway overshoot areas, especially for tabletop runways. However, no action has been taken by the DGCA, Rajen alleged.

“The existence of EMAS was brought to the knowledge of the Airport Authority of India and the respondents in 2008, however, for no plausible reason, the same has not been installed till date. During this time, the aviation industry has seen two horrific incidents at Mangaluru (in 2010) and Calicut (in 2020) causing loss of hundreds of lives, which could have been saved by the timely action of the respondents (DGCA),” the writ petition states.

How the EMAS works

According to the Federal Administration Association (FAA), installing EMAS can stop an aircraft which is moving at the speed of up to 80 miles per hour from overrunning the runway. 

The wheels of the plane dig into the concrete, causing a controlled deceleration due to the drag forces produced from the wheels to the landing gear of the aircraft. This brings the airplane to a smooth halt, within a predetermined distance. This, according to Rajen’s petition, minimises and virtually eliminates the risk of an aircraft nose gear collapsing and injury to passengers and crew.

Installing EMAS also reduces the 1000-feet Runway End Safety Area (RESA) requirement to 600 feet or less. This system is tailor-made for each airport depending on factors like runway width, space available, longitudinal slope, transverse slopes, soil conditions at the airport, weather conditions prevailing in the region, type of aircraft operating at the airport, etc.

It has been installed in more than 125 airports across the world. The FAA too recently listed 15 incidents in the US where the EMAS prevented accidents.

Why EMAS wasn’t installed in airports in India

According to the petition, the Public Relations Officer of Airports Authority of India (AAI) contacted Rajen in 2007 for a solution to address the issue of an aircraft overshooting a runway and several presentations were made to AAI for the same.

Rajen claims that AAI wanted to install two such EMAS beds at the end of each runway at the Kozhikode airport and contracts for the same were also drafted. “The airport at Mangaluru, Karnataka was also discussed, however, the priority was given to the airport at Calicut, as a test case. Due to the extreme economic crisis, the Calicut EMAS project was put in abeyance,” the petition states.

Post the Mangaluru air crash in 2010, an enquiry was conducted to investigate the crash and the Court of Inquiry recommended that an arresting system like the EMAS should be installed on the runway overshoot areas, especially for tabletop airports such as this one.

However, due to costs involved in installation of EMAS, the proposal was rejected at the Mangaluru airport as it was not operationally viable. According to reports, due to the high cost of Rs 100 crore, installation of EMAS was rejected by the DGCA.

In May 2012 too, the Ministry of Civil Aviation recommended to the DGCA to provide arresting systems such as the EMAS at the Mangaluru and Calicut airports. “Runways in airports such as Mangaluru and Calicut are very critical and providing suitably designed aircraft decelerating systems like EMAS will ensure safety,” it reportedly said. 

However, despite representations by companies and the experts, installation of such systems never happened, especially with the DGCA opposing it.

Post the Kozhikode crash as well, when the debate of installing EMAS came up, Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri argued that the Kozhikode airport is equipped with a Runway End Safety Area (RESA) as per International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) guidelines on safety and that EMAS provides safety benefit only if less than standard RESA length is available or at airports where RESA cannot be provided due to constraints.

Apart from seeking installation of EMAS and an enquiry into why it wasn’t installed earlier, the petition also seeks for DGCA to examine which other runways and airports in the country require such EMAS and install the same. 

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