Air India was once the pride of Asia. Not anymore. A string of incidents, the latest being the engine fire involving flight AI 829 on September 4 in Mumbai, shows up alarming deficiencies in safety, training and commitment.

“Nothing worthwhile is ever achieved without deep thought and hard work.”

J.R.D. Tata

Indian Aviation is synonymous with Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata. The man who started the rise of the Maharaja, is lucky not to be alive to see its fall. JRD’s soul, wherever it is, is probably whispering the lines from the Norwegian group Pride and Fall’s lyric “Retrospect”: “Now this is my shelter/ And this is my heart/ You’ve lived on my weakness/You torn me apart”.

The airline which was the pride of Asia is an absolute mess today. In 1978, when JRD was unceremoniously removed from the Air India board, he was the saddest man. If he had lived to see the sun set on his dream airline, he would have been devastated. From 1948, when JRD started Air India International, he had strived to make it the best airline in the region. The punctuality and the service of the airline were unmatchable. He built a culture of professionalism of the highest order. What has happened to the Maharaja is a sad end to the saga.

On September 4, 2009, AI 829, a Boeing 747-400, was on centre stage. While waiting in line for take-off, fuel leaking from the wings resulted in the No.1 engine catching fire. The whole area around the engine was engulfed in flames and the ground fire tenders were required to extinguish the flames. All passengers and crew were evacuated through the escape chutes. Two questions remain unanswered. What caused the fire? Why were the escape chutes on the left side, where one of the engines was on fire, deployed? What was the reason for the crew not opening all the exits on the right side?

Controllable phenomenon

The electronic media went to town on the possibilities of a catastrophe if the aircraft had got airborne and the fire erupted. They spoke of the aircraft disintegrating in pieces and the debris falling all over Mumbai! The reality is different. An engine fire in the air is controllable. The procedures laid down by the manufacturers ensure a safe culmination of the emergency drill. In all these years of modern jet transport, there has been no instance of an uncontrolled engine fire. In the first two actions on the emergency drill, the reduction of thrust to idle and shutting off the fuel into the affected engine, the fire is automatically extinguished more than 70 percent of the time. If the fire persists, the aircraft are equipped with specific fire extinguishers for each engine. The firing of the extinguisher shot into the engine should put out the fire completely.

On January 1, 2009, Saudi Arabian Airlines Boeing 747-168B with 442 on board from Madinah to Kuala Lumpur experienced a fire on the NO.4 engine, soon after take off. The crew took the necessary action to contain the engine fire and landed back safely in Madinah. All the passengers and crew were able to leave the aircraft normally, using the stairs.

On July 27, 2009, an Air France Airbus 340-300 experienced fire on No.4 engine after take-off from Boston International airport. The pilots followed the procedure in controlling the fire and landed back in Boston 25 minutes later.

There have been several in-flight shut down of engines due to fire and they have all been controlled effectively and a safe landing has been made. Professionally trained crew are capable of handling these emergencies and people need not fear that a catastrophic end is the likely result. One does not need a miracle to contain an engine fire in the air.

On the recent Air India 829 fire accident, the airline has given out explanations for several lapses, which are not convincing. The spokesman for the airline made a few statements about the evacuation having been made in a record time of 30 seconds. Only the final enquiry will confirm this claim. He had also claimed that the escape chutes on the left hand side were deployed after all the passengers and crew had evacuated. The MIAL spokesman had also stated that the fire personnel had gone in to check if anyone remained on board and they had opened the doors for “cross ventilation” to remove fuel smoke and fumes!

The meteorological report at the time of the event shows that the wind was blowing from 310 degrees at a speed of 5 knots and it was raining. Any smoke or fumes would enter the cabin only if the left side doors are opened. A check with a few of the passengers confirmed that there were no smell of fumes or presence of smoke in the cabin. Moreover, it is impossible to go up the escape slides, especially in rain. Air India would do well to correct the drift rather than trying to cover the deficiencies. They would do well to read JRD’s motto.

Multiple incidents

The airline has not endeared itself to the travelling public during the last two years. The following events, which have all been conveniently not taken to the truthful end in the inquiry, will show why the airline that JRD built is reaching its nadir.

On December 7, 2007 Air India flight AI 716 from Dubai to Mumbai landed back at Dubai after one hour in the air. They returned to offload a bag of a passenger who had failed to board. This is a serious security breach.

On February 4, 2008, an Air India 747 flight from Delhi to Mumbai had all the oxygen masks deploying in the initial climb. The flight should have landed back in Delhi. Instead, the flight continued to climb to 36,000 feet and proceeded to Mumbai with all the oxygen masks hanging down. This is a serious safety violation.

On February 26, 2008, an Air India Airbus 321 flight from Delhi to Srinagar returned as the engine cowling had fallen off on take off. This was a brand new aircraft which had been with the airline for just six months.

On May 16, 2008, a brand new Air India Boeing 777 was parked on the tarmac. The engineering personnel were carrying out maintenance check of the aircraft prior to its flight to Dubai as AI 717. The nose wheel collapsed two hours before the flight, and the aircraft received substantial damage. The engineer working under the nose had a miraculous escape.

On June 4, 2008, Flight AI 612, operating the Dubai-Delhi-Jaipur-Mumbai sector through the night had a miraculous escape. On the last leg, both pilots went to sleep, even though the airline is on a denial mode. From 0809 IST to 0856 IST, there was no radio contact with Air Traffic control nor did the aircraft respond to several calls made by other aircrafts in the vicinity. The flight overflew Mumbai by 43 nautical miles (80 km) before responding. If they had encountered the kind of weather the AF 447 had over the Atlantic, no one would have survived. The airline closed the case as a communication failure incident.

On November 7, 2008, AI 962 from Jeddah to Kozhikode, an Airbus A 310 flight, hit the wingtip on the runway, while landing in strong crosswind. All on board survived and they were lucky. The airline called it a “minor accident”. A similar kind of event took place in Narita Airport on March 9, 2009 to a Fedex MD-11. The aircraft catapulted on one wing and both pilots on board, the only occupants, died.

On February 9, 2009, an Air India flight rejected take off and missed the VVIP helicopter belonging to IAF, which landed without clearance on Runway 27 at Mumbai. The pilot had to be alerted three times by the tower controller before he initiated the reject action. The aircraft missed the offending helicopter by a mere 30 metres. Another second delay in the reject action would have resulted in a major collision. Strangely, no mention of this error finds a place in the inquiry report.

On May 6, 2009, the pilots of the flight to Mangalore commenced push back, even before the doors were closed. The aerobridge was still connected to the aircraft and it ripped off the door. During the subsequent inquiry into the incident, it was found that they were carrying three passengers more than the maximum capacity of the aircraft.

On May 30, 2009, at 7.45 a.m., A Jet airways flight from Mumbai to Kolkatta commenced take off from runway 14 at Mumbai. Simultaneously, an Air India Flight to Shanghai via Delhi commenced take off without clearance. The alert tower controller asked the Air India flight to reject the take off immediately. A serious disaster was prevented in time.

Bigger loss

In retrospect, there have been countless other incidents involving technical problems. Flights have been delayed on cancelled under some pretext or other. The recent request to the government for Rs. 20,000 crores to tide over the problem is a huge sum. But, the cost of lost credibility is several times that figure. An airline which was “Incandescent” under JRD is languishing today. The preferred carrier on the trans-Atlantic route is today the most despised carrier.

JRD, after some interactions with Mahatma Gandhi was always taken in by Gandhiji’s smile. This stayed with his outlook about others, including all his employees. He said, “I’m inclined instinctively to like people… I find here or abroad, you look at people and you smile, and they respond at once. There is an extraordinary capacity for response that one never exploits.”

If Air India is to recover its past glory, they need to remember to follow JRD’s words. Bring the smile back on the employees. All the incidents mentioned above show a glaring deficiency in safety, training and commitment. If the airline intends to rise and shine, they need to forget the frown.