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The Bhoja Tragedy: Turbulence Ahead

Posted by yourpakistan on April 23, 2012


Bhoja Air’s aged chief executive has been taken into custody, but defense minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar, who has presided over the most aviation accidents in Pakistan’s history, is unlikely to lose his job.

Farooq Bhoja was taken into federal custody on Saturday. The bespectacled and bearded chief executive of Karachi-based budget carrier Bhoja Air is facing multiple murder charges after one of his aircraft crashed near Islamabad on Friday evening killing all 127 on board. The Federal Investigation Agency said Bhoja had not been arrested, but simply detained for questioning. The same day the agency also ransacked his office.

Islamabad’s immediate response to the crash had been measured and compassionate: within an hour of the crash, a swift rescue and recovery operation had been launched; and President Asif Ali Zardari put the national carrier, Pakistan International Airlines, at the disposal of those who lost family on Bhoja Air flight B4213. The latest steps—which essentially declare the airline’s aged chief executive guilty until proven innocent—are unreasonable, irrational, and betray the pressure that the government has come under from a shocked public and overzealous media.The government is offering up Farooq Bhoja in an attempt to quell the outrage over the second commercial aircraft disaster on its watch in as many years and to head off public pressure that would force it into firing loyalists. “It is sheer incompetence,” said a grieving woman whose cousin was killed in the Bhoja crash, “This is the second major accident here in less than two years but the president and prime minister remain unmoved.” Defense minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar still has his job and is unlikely to lose it despite having presided over the most number of aviation accidents in Pakistan’s history than any other official before him. If the government wants to show that it is concerned about air safety, it can start by firing Mukhtar—and keeping him out of power.

Pakistani media consensus faults cost-saving measures at Bhoja Air for the crash but also, and largely, the alleged corruption within the government and the Civil Aviation Authority, the federal organization responsible for ensuring safety standards and which cleared Bhoja Air flight B4213. The government has pinned blame on the private airline. And the airline as well as Pakistani aviation industry insiders point to the weather that fateful Friday evening to explain the crash. As usual, shock and horror over the latest tragedy and the inevitable buck-passing have restricted space for any rational discourse.

At least one independent expert blames Pakistanis for the crash. “The safety of air travel depends on the integrity of the political and professional cultures of the country where you board the plane,” writes Clive Irving, author of Wide-Body: The Triumph of the 747, in the latest issue of Newsweek Pakistan. “In well-regulated safety regimes, a severe storm should not endanger any flight. Hundreds of landings are made around the world every day in similar conditions, and if the storm is a real threat the flights are diverted.” He says countries like Pakistan “are not very fussy about the airplanes and the airlines they allow into their skies.”

Bhoja Air’s flight B4213 crashed in Hussainabad village near Islamabad on Friday at 6:47 p.m., seven minutes after it made last contact with ground control, according to the CAA. “The plane took off from Karachi at 5:05 p.m. and was expected to land at Islamabad airport at 6:50 p.m.,” CAA spokesman Pervez George told Newsweek Pakistan. The flight was Bhoja’s first in 12 years on this route. The airline had been grounded by the CAA in 2000 and restarted domestic operations last month with a fleet of five aircraft, including at least one other Boeing 737-200.

“Bhoja Air deeply regrets this most unfortunate incident and expresses their heartfelt condolences to all the members of the families who have been affected,” the airline said in a brief statement on Friday night. It also released the passenger manifesto the same evening.

Bhoja’s doomed aircraft was 32 years old. “The aircraft was old and second hand but it is not something unusual,” Bhoja Air official Masham Zafar told wire service AFP. “The fleet of state-run PIA also runs old aircraft. Airlines rarely have brand new planes, and this aircraft was also refurbished. There was no technical issue and bad weather is to blame. The plane left with CAA certification after normal check at Karachi airport and it was given clearance by the CAA to land at the Islamabad airport.”

Nadeem Khan Yousafzai, director-general at the CAA, told AFP the plane suddenly dropped from 2,900 feet to 2,000 feet as it made its final approach to land, and vanished from the airport radar. He said another private airliner landed safely from the same approach about 10 minutes afterward and there was no indication from the Bhoja pilot that he was in distress. The flight data recorder has been recovered and will be sent abroad for analysis, said Yousafzai, adding that the crash investigation could take up to a year.

The Bhoja crash comes three months shy of the second anniversary of the Airblue flight 212 tragedy. That Karachi-Islamabad flight crashed into the Margalla Hills in July 2010 killing all 152 on board. The official inquiry report blamed pilot error for that crash.

Source: Newsweek Pakistan

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