After the plane crash

Can one hope for a thorough, independent, and transparent investigation into PK 8303 crash?

Just over a week since the tragic crash of Flight PK-8303 but we have already seen numerous reports in the media speculating about the cause of accident. Many ‘aviation experts’ seem to have crawled out of the woodwork and have been offering opinions despite having little or no commercial aviation experience. Some of them have had the audacity even to conclude the investigation before it has begun.

Air Crash Investigation has to be a very meticulous job. It can take months, even years. It is usually done by a diverse body of experts in several fields.

The 1944 Convention on International Civil Aviation has been ratified by 191 countries. It applies to flights undertaken within and between them. Annex 13 to the convention deals with Aircraft Accident and Incident Investigation so that investigations undertaken into aircraft accidents are commonly referred to as “Annex 13 investigations”.

It says: “States are required to establish accident investigation authorities that are independent from state aviation authorities and other entities that could interfere with the conduct or objectivity of an investigation.”

According to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), an accident investigation authority must have independence in the conduct of the investigation and have unrestricted authority over its conduct, consistent with the provisions of Annex 13. The investigation normally include: a) the gathering, recording and analysis of all relevant information on that accident or incident; b) the protection of certain accident and incident investigation records; c) if appropriate, the issuance of safety recommendations; d) if possible, the determination of the causes and/or contributing factors; and e) the completion of the final report.

The sole objective of an Annex 13 investigation of an accident or incident is the prevention of similar accidents and incidents, and not the apportioning of blame or liability. Annex 13 investigations result in reports of which the contents are shared to improve safety and best practices in aviation.

Pakistan, however, never had such an investigative authority until the start of this decade. When it was finally established, it was put under the umbrella of Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) so that all its staff was on the payroll of the CAA. The practice is still continuing.

With regard to PK-8303 inquiry, serious questions arise regarding the role of the CAA, PIA and the Aircraft Accident Investigation Board (AAIB) in the investigation.

The CAA is a member state of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). It has the responsibility to regulate commercial aviation in Pakistan and to implement the ICAO rules in the country. Its functions include airport maintenance, airlines safety and regulation, air traffic control and licensing of professionals in aviation.

The Aircraft Accident Investigation Board is responsible for investigating all aviation-related accidents and incidents in Pakistan.

PIA is governed by CAA regulations and is obliged to follow its advice in all aspects related to operations, airworthiness, safety, licensing of personnel etc.

If we take the incident of PK-8303 into consideration, serious questions need to be answered regarding the role of the CAA, PIA and Aircraft Accident Investigation Board in the investigation.

Besides issuing engineering and pilot licences, the CAA’s role of ensuring safety in aviation cannot be overlooked. Being an autonomous body, it is an organisation with professionally trained personnel including air traffic controllers, engineers, airworthiness inspectors and more. However, among the top CAA management currently only two people have a civil/commercial aviation background. This is strange given the amount of relevant talent available in Pakistan.

Doubts have been raised in the past about the top management influencing administrative decision-making. In 2018, an Air Navigation Order (ANO) was made but never implemented. It has been suggested that this may have been for the reason that its implementation might have required stricter enforcement of safety considerations including pilot rest requirements. Human factors and performance elements like fatigue, stress, and minimum rest requirements are a part of aviation medicine with decades of research undertaken globally. It appears that these aspects may have been neglected in Pakistani civil aviation.

The AAIB has designated a committee to investigate the accident. None of the committee members have commercial flying experience, let alone Airbus A320 experience. How can they investigate a commercial airliner accident without the inclusion of a pilot with relevant experience and technical staff from PIA or another international airline?

The fact that the investigation report of a PIA ATR crash in 2016 has not been released to the public makes it seem unlikely that the investigation report of this incident will be available in public domain. But the nation, especially the bereaved families, have the right to know the cause of the accident as well as how such accidents can be prevented in the future.

The main objective of releasing these reports worldwide is to eliminate errors and prevent hazardous negligence in the future. How may the lessons be extracted and improvements in the interest of safety be implemented if these are not shared?

The United States’ National Transportation Safety Bureau (NTSB), for instance, is an independent federal government agency charged with determining the probable cause of transportation accidents and promoting safety. If we don’t know the probable cause, it will be difficult to promote safety and prevent future accidents. Can the AAIB be considered independent while the salaries of its staff are paid by the CAA?

According to the notification issued by the Aviation Division, the four-member investigation team is headed by Aircraft Accident and Investigation board (AAIB) President Air Commodore Muhammad Usman Ghani. The other three members are AAIB Additional Director (Technical Investigation) Wing Commander Malik Muhammad Imran, Operations Investigator of Pakistan Air Force Safety Board-Kamra Group Capitan Touqeer and AAIB Joint Director Air Traffic Control Operations Nasir Majeed.

PIA’s chief executive cfficer Arshad Malik is a serving Air Marshal in Pakistan Air Force. Three out of the members of the investigation team, including the head of the committee, are his juniors in the PAF.

Only time will tell whether the committee makes a thorough, independent and transparent investigation and makes it public. Unfortunately, the history of such accidents and investigations that have followed them as well as the composition of the new committee, do little to inspire confidence.

The writer is a former chief pilot of the PIA

PIA plane crash: Can one hope for a thorough, independent, and transparent investigation into PK 8303 incident?