Unsafe landings increase as IndiGo seeks to trim soaring fuel costs using ‘unsanctioned methods’

DGCA finds fault with the flap 3 landings behind four recent tail strikes; pilots say it is part of the airline’s fuel saving measures

July 28, 2023 04:30 pm | Updated July 29, 2023 10:28 am IST - NEW DELHI

An IndiGo Airlines cabin baggage security check tag is pictured on a passenger’s luggage at Bengaluru International Airport in Bangalore. File

An IndiGo Airlines cabin baggage security check tag is pictured on a passenger’s luggage at Bengaluru International Airport in Bangalore. File | Photo Credit: Reuters

IndiGo’s attempts to save about six kg of fuel per flight, by recommending soft landings using only three of an aircraft’s wing flaps, may be leading to an increase in unsafe landings, according to its pilots.

On Friday, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) imposed a fine of ₹30 lakh on IndiGo for tail strikes during recent landings. The airline’s pilots claim that such unsafe landings are a direct result of IndiGo’s “over-emphasis on reducing fuel usage”, as well as mounting fatigue levels among pilots.

Following four tail strike incidents on IndiGo’s Airbus A321 aircraft within a span of six months this year, the regulator carried out a special audit of the airline and found “systemic deficiencies” in “operations, training and engineering procedures”, according to a DGCA statement.

Subsequently, the regulator served a showcause notice on the airline, to which IndiGo responded, insisting that no procedures had been violated. The regulator found its reply unsatisfactory. Apart from imposing the ₹30 lakh fine on the airline, the DGCA has also ordered it to amend its procedures in line with DGCA and Airbus guidelines.

IndiGo said it is examining the DGCA order and will respond to it in due time, indicating that it may even appeal against it.

Risky landings

Responding to The Hindu‘s query on the nature of deficiencies discovered, a senior DGCA official said, “As a company policy, the crew were asked to carry out flap 3 landing every time, which is not in line with the Airbus Flight Crew Operating Manual (FCOM) procedures.”

A flap 3 landing, known as a soft landing, involves only three of the four flaps on the wing and produces less drag, as a result of which less fuel is burned than in a flap full landing, known as a hard landing. But during a flap 3 landing, the aircraft’s nose is pitched slightly hgher than in flap full, while its tail is down, therefore increasing the chances of a tail strike. The Airbus A321, which was involved in the recent unsafe landing incidents, is longer than the A320 aircraft that dominate IndiGo’s fleet, which means that the risk of a tail strike is higher.

Pilots at IndiGo have been told that a flap 3 landing could save the airline 6 kg of fuel per landing. Though Airbus doesn’t prohibit flap 3 landings, they can be trickier for runways at an elevation such as those in Mumbai (50 feet), Delhi (800 feet), Bengaluru (3000 feet) where there is a possibility of aircraft unable to land within the touchdown zone or overshooting the runway.

Tracking pilots’ fuel usage

Some of the airline’s pilots who spoke to The Hindu on the condition of anonymity said that they preferred not to carry out a flap 3 landing because of the risks involved. Though the airline only recommends the flap 3 landing, letting pilots have the final say, there is always the fear of a “phone call from above”, pilots said. They also worried about how defying the airline’s recommendations could affect their prospects within the company, especially if they wished to apply for a management position.

“What if I am incapacitated? Will my co-pilot be able perform a flap 3 landing? I am not sure, and therefore in the interest of safety I never conduct this form of landing,” said one IndiGo captain.

Another pilot worried that the airline was keeping a strict vigil on how much fuel they each consumed on their flights. “There are meetings where we are shown a graph plotting fuel spent by different pilots. Though the individual data is anonymised, that can’t be hard to extract,” the pilot said.

Pilots also spoke at length about an “exponential increase” in duty timings and mounting fatigue. They urged that the regulator must investigate whether the tail strikes were also due to mental and physical exertion of pilots.

“The tail strikes are a matter of the luck of the draw. Some of those in the cockpit were senior captains who train other pilots. So, why is this happening? Pilots are not getting enough sleep, which is impacting their decision-making capabilities. I sometimes get only 15 hours of rest period between my flights. We are on minimum rest, and maximum duty hours. Has the DGCA looked into pilot fatigue reports submitted to the airline, forcing many of us to report sick to work?” asked a captain at IndiGo with nearly 15 years of experience.

The DGCA has slapped a three-month license suspension on the pilot involved in a tail strike during a landing in Ahmedabad on July 15. The co-pilot’s licence has been suspended for one month.

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