Istanbul airport accident a result of errors, negligence and ignorance, experts say

An accident at Istanbul’s second airport that killed three people and injured 179 others on Wednesday was a result of errors of judgement, insufficient infrastructure investment and a stubborn ignorance of technical know-how, experts say.

A Boeing 737 belonging to Turkish budget carrier Pegasus Airways, travelling from the western city of Izmir, skidded about 50 to 60 metres when it landed at Istanbul’s Sabiha Gökçen Airport, on the Asian side of the city, at 6.18 p.m. local time, dropped into a 30-metre ditch at the end of the runway and broke into three pieces. 

“No plane accident happens as a result of a single mistake. Accidents happen when various factors combine,” said a senior Turkish aviation expert who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

The plane landed in rain, during a thunderstorm with gusts of wind of around 65 km per hour. Pilots of two other planes coming into the airport minutes before aborted landing due to tailwinds that reached 25 knots (46.3 km/h).

“In case of winds over 10 knots (18 km/h), air traffic controllers are obliged to change landing directions,” said an airline pilot with more than 20 years of experience. “Probably they would have made the change after this plane had landed.”

Istanbul’s airspace is controlled by the newly opened Istanbul Airport in north of the city, one of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s mega projects. The air traffic controller only informed the pilot of the Pegasus Airways plane about the strength of the wind, but did not say it was above safe limits.

“When the pilot received that information - he also hears the sound of the wind - he should have aborted landing,” said the aviation expert. “Why did that man not make that decision? It might be the result of various factors.”

Might inexperience have played a role? “I have more than 10,000 hours of flight time. The same thing could happen to me tomorrow,” said the pilot, who declined to be named. “He might have been tired,” he said. “He likely flies four planes a day.”

Though Pegasus is a successful low-cost airline, it always values safety, the pilot said. But cost considerations might have affected the pilot’s judgment, the aviation expert said, as airline personnel receive bonuses when they minimise costs. For a 45-minute flight from Izmir to Istanbul, delaying landing for 10 minutes means increasing fuel consumption by approximately one-quarter. Moreover, that decision would probably mean the pilot would have to work for an extra hour, as he would have to file a report to the airport authorities. 

But there are still many questions about the accident, the aviation expert said. “From the footage, we cannot tell the place the plane’s wheels touched the runway. Did the plane land normally, but could not resist the wind? Or was the pilot late on landing? Was visibility poor? We do not know.”

The pilot who spoke to Ahval said in such instances the heavy rain made the runway more slippery and the moment the plane landed, hydroplaning may have made the brakes ineffective.

But errors of judgment do not explain why the passengers found themselves in a ditch after the accident. “All airports have runway end safety areas helping planes stop in case they skid,” said the aviation expert. But the runway at Sabiha Gökçen does not have such an area at either end. Because of surrounding buildings, the runway also makes for a difficult approach.

The airport, opened in 2002, already needs a second runway. Repairs of the existing runway can be done only at night when the airport is closed. More comprehensive maintenance work that takes weeks is impossible as there is no second runway to which to divert air traffic.

A second runway for the airport was planned as early as 2008 and construction started in 2014. 

“With state support, Turkish contractors built an airport of massive dimensions in Istanbul in only four years, but a second runway in Sabiha Gökçen has not been built in five years,” the aviation expert said. 

A second runway to increase annual passenger capacity from 35 million to 65 million is being built by Makyol, a big contractor that takes large shares of state construction tenders.

Other contractors, including Cengiz, Kalyon, and Kolin, all close to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), were part of the consortium that build Istanbul’s new airport. They were guaranteed an annual income of 6.3 billion euros from the 90 million passengers projected to travel through the Istanbul Airport annually, with any shortfall to be made up by the Treasury. Cengiz and Kalyon are also involved in the construction of the second runway at Sabiha Gökçen. 

“They are preventing the completion of the second runway. Why? So that they ensure that the traffic moves to the new airport,” the aviation expert said. “Because the new airport is not a place that passengers would normally prefer. It is far away.”

The city’s previous main Atatürk Airport was shut down after the new Istanbul Airport became fully operational in April last year. Since then, Sabiha Gökçen has been working at full capacity. Many passengers try to avoid using the new airport, which has been criticised by many experts over the quality of its construction, and its location, which makes it vulnerable to strong winds, particularly from the north.

Planes spend around 40 minutes taxiing at Istanbul Airport, while it only takes 10 minutes at the city’s second airport, the pilot said. “If your aim is just to travel, then you would choose Sabiha Gökçen.”

Based in Sabiha Gökçen, Pegasus, has outperformed Turkish Airlines since the country’s flag carrier moved all its operations to the new airport last year.

When the civil aviation authority decided to limit new flights from Sabiha Gökçen last month, aviation sector experts accused authorities of trying to curb air traffic there in an attempt to favour the new airport. Pegasus shares fell on the stock market as a result of the decision.

In January, another Pegasus plane veered off the side of the runway at Sabiha Gökçen. After the second and deadly incident on Wednesday, the company’s shares were down 4 percent on Thursday.

After the latest accident, many on social media called on authorities to reopen Atatürk Airport. But that is impossible, experts say. Atatürk Airport and the new Istanbul Airport cannot operate simultaneously as all routes have been recalibrated at great cost. Two of the three runways at Atatürk Airport have been made unusable since it was closed last year.

Of course, the aviation expert said, no one had set out to create an environment for an accident, “but there is such ignorance, such lack of knowledge, such disrespect for technical knowledge,” he said, that the likelihood of something going wrong had increased. 

That leaves some 18 million living in Turkey’s financial hub with two airports, neither of which they can trust fully. 

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.