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New Delhi: The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has asked SpiceJet Ltd to start passenger flights to India’s northern-most airfield in Kargil in Jammu and Kashmir, a move the budget airline resisted on the grounds that it’s unsafe.

Kargil rose to prominence in the late 1990s as the site of an undeclared war between India and Pakistan. A military outpost, it’s served by the Indian Air Force’s Russian-built Antonov An-32. The high-altitude airfield is considered risky for flying.

Typically, it’s up to the airline to choose where it wants to fly as long as the routing conforms to the regulator’s rules.

In this case, however, probably for the first time, the DGCA deputy director of air safety wrote to SpiceJet CEO Neil Raymond Mills last fortnight, asking the carrier to connect Srinagar with Kargil, according to a government official who declined to be named.

The DGCA spokesperson wasn’t available for comment despite several attempts to reach him on the phone.

The government official said DGCA considers that only Bombardier Q400 turboprop planes can meet the criteria for landing at the airfield. SpiceJet is the only Indian carrier with Q400 planes. But the conditions at Kargil, set in the Himalayas, are such that lives will be put at risk, safety experts said.

“The terrain in the region makes it a completely visual conditions flight with low clouds," the government official said, which means that pilots have to depend on their eyes to be able to land and not on their instruments. “How can this flight go?"

Other airlines such as Jet Airways (India) Ltd and Air India Ltd also have smaller turboprop aircraft but these don’t meet the specifications that qualify a plane for landing in Kargil.

An airline spokesman declined to comment.

“Please" is not in the DGCA dictionary, said a SpiceJet official who also declined to be named. “DGCA is actively pursuing us to do the flight, which is fundamentally unsafe," this person said. “Who will be responsible if there is a crash? It’s complete craziness."

Ironically, the directive has come as the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO, is scheduled to vet DGCA’s safety regulation and processes in December.

The government official said some DGCA officials have flown in a small Jammu and Kashmir state government aircraft to Kargil and now SpiceJet is being asked to conduct a test flight. Once this touches down safely, it will be assumed that commercial flights can also do so.

The initial safety assessment of Kargil by these DGCA officials had said “commercial operations to Kargil aerodrome on Q400 aircraft type are not recommended for many reasons". It said the normal maximum rate of descent for the flight should 1,200 feet per minute during the final approach but has to be sharper 2,000 feet per minute because of mountains.

Given the terrain, the onboard automatic safety system will issue warnings, asking pilots to “pull up".

Bombardier Inc. said the aircraft can land in airfields at an altitude of up to 10,000 feet. Kargil is at a height of 9,604 feet above sea level. Leh, at an altitude of 11,562 feet, is India’s highest airfield in use, with daily regular commercial flights.

“The Q400 is certified by all major national authorities, including Transport Canada, the FAA (Federal Aviation Authority) and of course the Indian DGCA to operate from airfields with an altitude of 10,000 feet, well in excess of its primary competitor’s ability," Bombardier’s spokesperson said in an email from Toronto.

The decision to connect Kargil seems to have been taken by the regulator under political pressure, said Mohan Ranganathan, air safety expert and member of the Civil Aviation Safety Advisory Council, or CASAC.

“Theoretically, the aircraft may meet the performance criteria (for Kargil) but the hills surrounding the runway makes it dangerous," he said. “Whoever cleared civil flight operations to Kargil should read the Colgan Air crash report, where icing conditions not recognised by the crew resulted in the fatal accident."

He was referring to a Q400 that crashed near Buffalo, New York, in 2009 killing all 49 people on board and one person on the ground.

“It appears that the DGCA is under political pressure to commence flights to Kargil. The airfield is unfit for civilian flights. If a fatal accident takes place, there is no accountability. We will be left with dead bodies," he said.

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