Air India Jet Crashes Off Runway, Killing 158 People

An Air India Express Boeing Co. plane overshot the runway and burst into flames in southern India, killing 158 people in the nation’s first fatal crash of a passenger aircraft in a decade.

Flight IX-812 from Dubai to Mangalore crashed at 6:30 a.m. local time, Anup Srivastava, Air India personnel director, told reporters in Mumbai. CNN-IBN television channel showed flames and thick smoke billowing from a forested area after the plane slammed through a boundary wall and slid down a hill. Of eight survivors, three were seriously injured, Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel said.

The Boeing 737-800 was carrying 160 passengers and six crew, Srivastava said. India’s aviation regulator will investigate the crash, he said, declining to comment on the possible cause. The accident may be the worst in India in 14 years, according to the Aviation Safety Network website.

Kingfisher Airlines Ltd., SpiceJet Ltd., IndiGo, GoAirlines (India) Pvt. and Paramount Airways Ltd. have all started flying in the decade since India’s last major air disaster. Civil Aviation Minister Patel said in March that India needs to more than quadruple the number of airports to meet increased traffic.

“India’s safety record has been as good as it gets,” said Kapil Kaul, chief executive officer of the Indian unit of the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation. Mangalore’s “tabletop” runway “has challenges and the experience of the pilot is critical,” he said.

‘Air India Struggling’

For lossmaking national carrier Air India the accident “comes at a time when it is struggling,” Kaul said. “This is going to be demotivating. While the incident may not affect their plans to raise capital, ‘‘they are going to be much more in focus for the wrong reasons,’’ he said.

Firefighters had to cross a railway track and battle through trees to reach the wreckage, CNN-IBN reported. The television channel showed a rescue worker carrying the foam-covered body of young child up a mud bank away from the crash.

Air India said in statement it was deploying ‘‘all its resources’’ to assist the families of passengers. The airline released the names of seven survivors in a separate statement.

Boeing is sending a team to provide technical assistance to the investigation at the invitation of Indian authorities, the Chicago-based aircraft manufacturer said in a statement.

Pilots Experienced

Srivastava said both pilots were experienced and had flown into Mangalore on May 17. The plane, which was about two and a half years old, was commanded by a British national, he said. All the passengers were Indian nationals, he said, adding 116 bodies had so far been recovered.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed condolences over the ‘‘grievous loss of life’’ in a statement, announcing compensation for those killed. Singh postponed celebrations to mark the first anniversary of his re-election.

While the government said conditions were good at the time of the crash with visibility of around six kilometers (four miles), Prabhakar Sharma, additional deputy commissioner of Mangalore district in southern Karnataka state, said there had been rain in the area.

The plane fractured in two after leaving the runway, a survivor told CNN-IBN. The man, identified only as Pradeep, said in a TV interview from hospital and he and others managed to escape the wreckage through the crack in the fuselage

‘No Warning’

‘‘There was no warning to passengers about any trouble and it appeared a smooth landing,’’ a survivor that Air India named as Mayankutty K.P. told the Press Trust of India. ‘‘Immediately on touching the ground the aircraft jerked,’’ he said. Then it ‘‘split in the middle and caught fire. I just jumped from the gap,’’ he said.

‘‘The accident occurred after the aircraft landed at Mangalore airport and overshot the runway,’’ Air India’s Srivastava said. ‘‘According to information available with us, eight people were rescued and shifted to local hospitals in Mangalore.’’

India will be the fastest-growing air travel market for the next 10 years, Airbus SAS, the world’s biggest planemaker, predicts. Over the next 20 years, Indian carriers will need 1,030 new aircraft worth $138 billion, it forecasts.

Today’s crash is the worst in India since a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight collided with a Kazakhstan Airlines jet in November, 1996, killing all 349 on board.

Bihar Crash

In the South Asian country’s last major air disaster, a Boeing 737-200 crashed into a residential area while approaching Patna airport in the eastern state of Bihar in July 2000. The Alliance Air aircraft, which carried 52 passengers and six crew, nose-dived into a house one kilometer short of the airport, killing 45 passengers, all crew members and two people on the ground.

Air India had debt of 152 billion rupees ($3.3 billion) as of June, according to the government. It may post a loss of 54 billion rupees for the fiscal year ended March 31, compared with a loss of 55.5 billion rupees a year earlier, according to minister Patel.

India needs about 400 operational airports to meet increased traffic, compared with 90 now, Patel said on March 3.

Raising funds to develop the airline may not be badly damaged by today’s crash, the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation’s Kaul said. ‘‘That depends on the government giving it the required guarantees,” he said.

Travel Rebound

International air travel has rebounded from last year’s slump as the global economy expanded. Indian airlines carried 16.82 million passengers between January and April this year, 22 percent more than a year earlier, according to the Civil Aviation Ministry.

Like state-controlled Chinese carriers and Japan Airlines Ltd., Air India has sought government aid as it flies unprofitable routes and faces growing competition from carriers including Singapore Airlines Ltd.

National Aviation Co. of India Ltd, Air India’s owner, is seeking to raise as much as $1.15 billion to refinance loans that funded the purchase of 21 Airbus SAS planes.

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