Inadequate airfield markings, combined with insufficient preparation and coordination by pilots, led to an Air India Airbus A320neo landing on an under-construction runway at Velana International Airport (MLE), a report from the Maldives Accident Investigation Coordinating Committee (AICC) said.
In the Sept. 7, 2018 incident, Air India flight 263 was en route from Trivandrum, India, to Malé, Maldives, on a mid-day flight in clear weather.
Following a routine departure and cruise, the flight crew requested and was granted a VOR approach to MLE’s Runway 18—the airport’s only runway. But the crew instead touched down on a nearly parallel surface about 190 m (623 ft.) to the east that was being constructed to replace the existing runway.
As the aircraft’s approach speed slowed after touchdown, it “crossed a white-colour cloth and [the captain] could feel a slight bump,” the AICC report, released Sept. 4, said. “Right after [the pilots] crossed the white cloth, ATC informed them that they landed on a wrong runway.” The “cloth” formed part of a large, temporary X, one of several laid out to signal that the runway was closed.
The aircraft, VT-EXL, suffered a punctured left main landing gear tire. None of the 107 passengers or seven crewmembers onboard was injured.
AICC investigators determined the flight crew misidentified the under-construction runway—which was just weeks from opening—as the active runway because of a number of factors. Among them: freshly painted markings on the soon-to-be-opened runway were not obstructed, making them more visible than those on the active runway. The new runway was not numbered when the incident took place, but other markings—including those denoting a displaced threshold—were “clear,” the report stated.
The now-open new runway is 10,500 ft. long, or 500 ft. longer than the old runway. It also sits farther north. At the time of the incident, “for an aircraft approaching Runway 18, the threshold markings of the runway under construction were closer than those of the runway in use,” the report noted.
The captain also said none of the Xs denoting the closed surface was near the threshold.
“Due attention was not given by [civil aviation authorities] to ensure compliance with the safety standards and markings of the runway under construction,” AICC said.
Both Air India pilots had flown into MLE before, but the captain had only flown the Runway 36 approach. At that end, the active runway’s threshold was closer to the arriving aircraft than the under-construction runway. The first officer had flown one previous approach on Runway 18.
The 30-year-old captain had 4,906 total flying hours on the day of the incident, including 4,706 hours on Airbus A320s and 846 hours as a pilot-in-command, AICC said. The 24-year-old first officer had 1,766 total hours, including 1,566 on the A320 and none as a pilot-in-command, the report said.
The airfield construction was documented in a July 2017 notice to airmen (NOTAM) that was still active. Both pilots received the NOTAM as part of their pre-flight briefing packets, AICC found. The captain told investigators he was not aware of the NOTAM, while the first officer said she knew about the NOTAM and the closed runway. The crew did not discuss the issue either before or during the flight.
The air traffic controller on duty in MLE’s tower said he could not determine whether the aircraft was lined up on the incorrect runway before it touched down. “He stated that there was no difficulty in controlling the traffic on the day of the incident” and “no communication difficulty with the aircraft,” AICC said.
AICC made several recommendations based on its probe.
It urged Air India to ensure its flight-dispatch procedures, including proper review of NOTAMS, are followed.
Airport operator Maldives Airports Company Ltd. was told to review its procedures for communicating airfield maintenance is in progress and make sure runway markings are adequately maintained.
AICC suggested the Maldives Civil Aviation Authority ensure that airport-status communication procedures are in place and followed.
Investigators also recommended that Maldives Air Navigation Services establish “precautionary measures” during periods of airfield construction as well as to ensure “staff on duty are not distracted.”
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