Mumbai rains play havoc with flight operations: City's airport must urgently focus on disaster recovery plan

  • Part of the woes for Mumbai is linked to bad weather

  • Mumbai, on the western coast of India, experiences heavy to very heavy rainfall during monsoons and has traditionally seen water logging

  • Until a new airport is constructed and operational, Mumbai airport will not only be the busiest in the world, but also one of the most congested

Mumbai airport is the world’s busiest single runway airport. It is anything but India’s pride even after handling 1000+ air traffic movements in a single day. As a Spicejet B737 overshot the runway on 1 July, the resultant diversions, delays and cancellations once again showcased the challenges facing the only airport in Maximum City and the financial capital of India. The airport has two runways but cannot be used simultaneously as they intersect. A plan to build a parallel runway did not materialise since over 300 acres of airport land is encroached upon and the lack of a political will has meant that the encroachment has not been cleared.

Part of the woes for Mumbai is linked to bad weather. Mumbai, on the western coast of India, experiences heavy to very heavy rainfall during monsoons and has traditionally seen water logging— an evil which the city has not been able to get over in successive years, despite tall claims. Bad weather, however, impacts multiple airports across the world. Early this year, thousands of flights were grounded in central parts of the USA due to severe weather conditions caused by a cyclone. In January, airports in the UK, led by Manchester closed runways as it battled heavy snow. However, these incidents are not repetitive and mostly one-off. When it comes to Mumbai, there is a trend of repetitive closures due to waterlogging or runway overruns.

Mumbai received the heaviest rainfall in a decade on 30 June and 1 July, when the airport was already experiencing restrictions on capacity due to the weather. The Spicejet incident added to the woes with over 50 diversions to airports all across the country led by Ahmedabad, Hyderabad and Bengaluru. Some of the airlines, including international ones, had a larger impact as it had diversions to destinations which aren’t crew bases and led to the aircraft, crew and passengers being stuck for up to 24 hours before they could be brought back to Mumbai.

 Mumbai rains play havoc with flight operations: Citys airport must urgently focus on disaster recovery plan

A SpiceJet plane from Jaipur overshot the runway while landing at Mumbai airport amid heavy rain. PTI

Last July an Air India Express B737 had an excursion after landing on runway 14 leading to the closure of the airport for nearly an hour. The monsoons in 2017 had seen Spicejet involved in another overrun similar to the one on 1 July, when the main runway was impacted and closed for operations for two days.

Going by passenger numbers, Mumbai is the 28th busiest airport in the world and has been awarded service quality certifications. But all of it pales during the monsoons when the airport descends into chaos, rarely seen by any airport anywhere in the world and certainly not by any other major airport which is as busy as Mumbai airport.

What leads to this chaos in Mumbai? The airport is encircled by slums, encroachment and civilization on almost all sides. Add to that, the heavy winds and rains which batter the city each year and over 40 air traffic movements each hour, the pressure is high to land and vacate the runway for the next movement to take place. The rains could lead to poor braking action of the aircraft and a gust of wind at the last minute could push the aircraft away from the optimum landing zone, leading to a shorter distance being available to stop the aircraft and if it doesn’t, then you have an overrun which leads to a chaos like no other.

The fact that this happens repeatedly in Mumbai airport indicates clearly that something needs to be done in order to stop this annual chaos from recurring. To its credit, Mumbai International Airport Limited (MIAL)—the operator of Mumbai airport has worked tirelessly since the deluge of 2005 when the Mithi river, which flows below the main runway, swelled and led to waterlogging in the airport. Channeling the river, water drains, runway re-carpeting—the infrastructure side has been taken care of and is being improved upon year-on-year, yet one thing or the other leads to the same situation like the 1 July incident.

Globally, airports have a disaster recovery plan and it is time for airports like Mumbai to have a sharp focus on this so as to ensure that thousands of passengers are not diverted or left fending for themselves in the airport terminal. While Air India is the nodal agency for disaster recovery, traditionally it has taken time to recover the aircraft and operationalise the runway. A quicker turnaround with coordination with MIAL will help get over such incidents quickly.

While this plan serves post-incident, a long-term view could be to increase the runway-end safety area (RESA) and help prevent aircraft overruns ending up in the mud, which will help the restoration of operations at the earliest. Until a new airport is constructed and operational, Mumbai airport will not only be the busiest in the world, but also one of the most congested and challenging as the city in general and airport in particular grapple with infrastructure woes.

(The writer is founder of aviation analysis blog NetworkThoughts)

Updated Date: Jul 03, 2019 18:37:47 IST