MUMBAI, India – The main runway of Mumbai airport remained shut for the third consecutive day on Sunday, forcing flight disruptions, with delays increasing by the hour after nightfall. The Turkish Airlines runway excursion incident seems to have proved one thing-there are some situations that even privatisation of an airport cannot remedy.
“Even after factoring in adverse weather conditions, the work should have been completed in 48 hours,” said Robey Lal, former member (operations), Airports Authority of India. “They should have called people experienced in recovering aircraft in monsoon conditions,” he added. On Friday morning, the Turkish Airlines A340-300 aircraft skid off the main runway after landing in heavy rains and poor visibility conditions. Its nose wheel and main undercarriage was lodged in sludge at a spot about 20 feet off the runway. The aircraft’s proximity to the main runway forced its closure. Flight operations-the airport handles about 700 flights in 24 hours-were moved to the secondary runway, 14-32. At the time of going to the press, the latest NOTAM (notice to airmen) issued said that the runway should re-open by 12 am, Monday.
The work of aircraft removal has two stages. The first, being handled by Larsen and Toubro, involved laying out a temporary pathway to tow the aircraft back onto the runway. The second, that of dislodging the aircraft from the sludge and towing it back to a hangar is being handled by Air India, the only airline in the country with a Disabled Aircraft Recovery Kit. Engineers from Turkish Airlines and officials from Mumbai International Airport Pvt Ltd (MIAL), the company that runs the airport, have been assisting both teams in the recovery work. The work on laying out the temporary pathway was completed by 11.30 pm on Saturday, after which Air India took over.
“After inflatable bags dislodged the aircraft wheels from the slush on Sunday, the actual towing of the aircraft began at 8 pm,” said an airport source. Steel plates were laid over a temporary pathway to aid the smooth movement of aircraft tyres. “The aircraft’s main wheels were towed back into the runway. But just about then, by 8.40 pm, the nose wheel turned and the steel plates gave away under the aircraft’s weight, re-lodging the nose wheel again into sludge,” said a source. “It’s very hard to estimate when the aircraft will be removed as there could be some weather-related problems or some unforeseen technical delays,” he added.
It remains to be seen how long it takes for the joint team comprising engineers, officials from a government-run organisation and three private companies, including a foreign-owned one, to remove the aircraft and reopen the runway.
Meanwhile on Sunday, strong winds, as high as 25 knots, swept across the runway hampering the recovery process and making it again a difficult day for pilots landing aircraft in Mumbai. “The heavier an aircraft, the more treacherous was the landing as the secondary runway provides only about 7,000 feet of usable length for an aircraft to land and come to a halt,” said a senior commander.
The strong winds forced a Lufthansa freighter aircraft to divert to Hyderabad around 4.30 pm. “It made two attempts to land, but after two go-arounds the commander decided to divert to Hyderabad,” said an airport source. Singapore Airlines has cancelled its flights to Mumbai as the airline does not land its aircraft on the secondary runway.
Though delays for arriving and departing flights ranged between 30 minutes to an hour for most part of the day, it worsened at night, as has been the case in the last two days. “My flight to Chennai was scheduled for 8.30 pm, but after we boarded the aircraft we were told to disembark,” said a Jet Airways passenger. “It’s 10.30 pm and we have no clue when will it depart,” she added.