New Delhi: Around 7 pm on 7 August 2015, an aircraft of United Airways, a now-defunct Bangladeshi airline, made an emergency landing at Raipur’s Swami Vivekanand airport after an engine failure on its way from Dhaka to Muscat.
Over five and a half years later, the McDonnell Douglas MD 83 continues to occupy one of the eight parking bays at the Raipur airport. It has notched up parking dues to the tune of Rs 1.25 crore, but no one from the company has arrived to fly it back home despite repeated communications from the Airports Authority of India (AAI).
After years of back and forth with United Airways, the AAI in January began the legal process for the aircraft’s eviction, which will involve selling the plane to recover its dues.
“The airline responded to our legal notice on 18 January asking for nine months to sell their aircraft. We are deliberating if we should accept this offer because they have repeatedly broken their promises,” said Raipur Airport Director Rakesh Sahay. “We will come to a decision in a week.”
Three weeks after the emergency landing, a team from the Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh landed in Raipur for an inspection of the aircraft. A few months later, another team arrived and replaced the faulty engine. However, owing to the absence of a ‘Certificate of Airworthiness’ from the Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh — a mandatory requirement — the plane could not take off.
Senior officials of the AAI at Raipur say they have contacted the airline through roughly 50 letters and emails since 2015, but to no avail. “We send the company monthly reminders. Every time their reply would remain the same, that they are awaiting approval from the Bangladesh aviation authority,” Sahay added.
ThePrint reached officials in the Bangladesh Civil Aviation Authority — including those in the Aircraft Accident Investigation Committee — via emails and calls but had not received a response till the time of publishing this report.
Calls and emails to Wing Commander M. Shahbuddin Ahmed — an official of United Airways who was coordinating the matter with the AAI — did not elicit a response either.
What happened that day
The plane took off from Dhaka with 173 people on board. As it entered the Varanasi-Raipur airspace, the operating crew reported low engine pressure, which was followed by a massive explosion.
“We were at 32,000 feet when a part of the engine caught fire and broke off. We could hear the sound, the vibration, the swing as the aircraft descended. We were lucky to have an engineer on board that day,” Captain Shahbaz Imtiaz Khan, the pilot on the United Airways flight, told ThePrint.
This is when the first Mayday call (distress call) was made, seeking immediate priority landing at the nearest airport.
On account of the engine failure, the plane began losing altitude, because of which the distress messages could not be picked up by the Kolkata Air Traffic Control (ATC).
“The Raipur airport was closer than the Kolkata airport so we decided to land there as per our protocol. But Raipur ATC actually didn’t have the authority or jurisdiction to catch our frequency,” Khan said.
At that moment, an IndiGo flight from Mumbai to Kolkata picked up their distress message and relayed it to the Kolkata ATC, who then briefed the airport authorities at Raipur.
“The IndiGo pilot went off his route to help us as he played mediator and relayed our message to the Kolkata ATC and vice-versa,” Khan said.
With no navigation chart on how to land at the airport, the IndiGo pilot ensured that the United Airways flight landed safely by maintaining constant radio contact.
“We are not an international airport, we didn’t expect any international flight. But since it was an emergency, we allowed it,” Sahay said of that day.
But the ordeal was still not over. With no customs or immigration facilities at the airport, passengers were stranded there for 27 hours till a special relief aircraft was sent by United Airways on 8 August at 10.27 pm.
The Swami Vivekanand airport is the oldest in Chhattisgarh and currently has 27 arrivals and departures each. With eight parking bays — all of which are occupied for two hours in the morning, from 8-10 am, and another two in the evening, from 4-6 pm — space has always been a concern.
“We wrote to the airline (United Airways) in July 2018, letting them know that we will shift the aircraft across the runway. On 20 July, the company’s engineer and another official from their Kolkata office flew down to Raipur to complete the process. We sought their signature on a letter that reiterated our request. The official took the letter back to Dhaka, but the response remained the same,” Sahay said.
The Raipur airport director claimed that correspondence from their side has been relentless, but they did not receive any response all through 2020. On 4 January 2021, the AAI began the legal process of eviction.
Faced with mounting losses, United Airways hasn’t flown a single plane since 2016. Eight of its aircraft remain abandoned in the cargo approach area of Dhaka’s Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport, “disrupting loading and unloading activities of cargo aircrafts at the prime airport of the country”.