Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

India to install hotlines at 13 airports to deal with hijackings

The move is among several being adopted in the wake of heightened security concerns and include new guidelines for passengers and visitors

New Delhi: India’s aviation ministry will install hotlines in 13 important airports to plug any communication gaps in the event a plane is hijacked.

The move is among several being adopted in the wake of heightened security concerns and include new guidelines for passengers and airport visitors.

India has witnessed around six hijackings since independence. The last major one occurred in 1999 when Indian Airlines Flight IC-814 flying from Kathmandu was hijacked by militants and diverted to Kandahar, Afghanistan. Experts cite communication gaps as the main reason why nothing was done when the plane stopped to refuel in Amritsar.

That will change.

“We have decided to have two dedicated lines through which we can do immediate video conferencing in case of any hijack situation" said a government official who asked not to be named.

“They will serve as permanent hotlines."

The lines, which will allow for live video conferencing, will be made available at 13 airports with dedicated rooms. They will be connected to a crisis management room in the civil aviation ministry and another in the office of the cabinet secretary.

The airports are: Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Trivandrum, Nagpur, Ahmedabad, Chandigarh, Jaipur, Lucknow and Guwahati.

The airports chosen cover most of India’s geography. The plan is that the hijacked plane will be diverted to the closest airport quickly and instant communication on ground situation and potential demands of hijackers be relayed immediately to the control rooms.

A second government official who also asked not to be named confirmed that all the approvals necessary for the plan have been taken.

The Airports Authority of India (AAI) has been tasked with the responsibility of installing the equipment.

In other steps, the ministry has also decided to ban visitor entry inside airports across the country and asked passengers to report early for flights.

Analysts say the recent attack on Indian Air Force base in Pathankot should push the government to review airport security measures.

Last year, India cleared a tough anti-hijacking law that prescribed the death penalty for hijackers.

The law also empowered concerned agencies or security forces to immobilize an aircraft or prevent its take-off. The Indian Air Force can also scramble its fighters to intercept a hijacked aircraft and force it to land. It can also shoot down a hostile plane if there is evidence that it could be used as a missile to hit a vital installation.

A senior airline pilot who flies often from Indian airports suggested more measures to prevent hijacks.

He said the government should install full-body scanners at airports. It should replace the rule of stamping hand baggage tags with a mandatory second level of physical bag checking by Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) security personnel before passengers board the aircraft.

More CISF personnel should be hired so that airline staff do not have to do these second level of checks.

The pilot, who asked not to be identified as he is not authorized to speak to the media, said the government should also make Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS)—a digital data-link system for transmission of short messages between aircraft and ground stations via airband radio or satellite—mandatory for airlines. ACARS has modes that could help in any emergency. He also recommended that airlines should change their hijack code every quarter.

“They should also teach basic martial training to cabin crew like in China and Singapore," he said.

Former AAI board member Robey Lal, too, recommended improving the existing security infrastructure.

He specifically highlighted the need to improve cargo security.

The much delayed Perimeter Intrusion Detection System at airports should be implemented fast, Lal added. “Pathankot ought to be a wake-up call to military and civil airports."

A. S. Dulat, former chief of intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing, welcomed the government‘s move.

“What the immediate provocation is we don’t know. Maybe the government has some news which is not in the public domain," he said.