A flight carrying Indians stranded abroad by coronavirus skidded off a runway and split in half, killing at least 18 people.
More than 120 other people were injured, 15 of them critically, when the plane cracked into two pieces while landing in Kerala in heavy rain.
The dead included both pilots of the Air India Express flight, the airline said in a statement, adding that the four cabin crew members were safe.
The two-year-old Boeing 737-800 flew from Dubai to Kozhikode, also called Calicut, in Kerala, India’s southernmost state, the airline said.
A similar tragedy was narrowly avoided at the same airport a year ago, when an Air India Express flight suffered a tail strike upon landing. None of the 180 passengers of that flight were injured.
Kozhikode’s 2,850-metre runway is on a flat hilltop with deep gorges on either side ending in a 34-metre drop.
Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep S Puri said in a statement that the flight “overshot the runway in rainy conditions and went down” the slope, breaking into two pieces upon impact.
An inquiry will be conducted by the ministry’s Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau, he said.
The airport’s runway end safety area was expanded in 2018 to accommodate wide-body aircraft.
The runway end safety area meets United Nations international civil aviation requirements, but the UN agency recommends a buffer that is 150 metres longer than that which exists at Kozhikode airport, according to Harro Ranter, chief executive of the Aviation Safety Network online database.
Dubai-based aviation consultant Mark Martin said that while it was too early to determine the cause of the crash, annual monsoon conditions appeared to be a factor.
“Low visibility, wet runway, low cloud base, all leading to very poor braking action is what looks like led to where we are at the moment with this crash,” Mr Martin said, calling for the European Aviation Safety Agency and the US Federal Aviation Administration to assist with the Indian government’s investigation.
The Air India Express flight was part of the Indian government’s repatriation mission to bring Indian citizens back to the country, officials said.
All of the passengers were returning from the Gulf region, authorities said. Regular commercial flights have been halted in India because of the coronavirus outbreak.
There were 174 adult passengers, 10 infants, two pilots and four cabin crew on board the aircraft.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted that he was “pained by the plane accident in Kozhikode”, and that he had spoken to Kerala’s top elected official.
The worst air disaster in India was on November 12 1996, when a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight collided midair with a Kazakhastan Airlines Flight near Charki Dadri in Haryana state, killing all 349 on board the two planes.