On The Other Hand | Columns

Stretched to the limit

Last week, a Jet Airways flight from Mumbai to Jaipur had to return within 45 minutes, after the pilots reportedly “forgot” to turn on the bleed air switch which helps in maintaining cabin pressure. This led to a sudden drop in air pressure inside the aircraft. The situation was scary: oxygen masks were deployed, several passengers developed nosebleeds and bleeding ears, and many reported splitting headaches.

Technical snags

This is not a stand-alone incident. On September 1, a Pune-bound Airbus A320 neo plane of GoAir had to return after it suffered a technical snag. A few days back, two pilots were grounded for this incident for their “poor handling of emergency” — while they had landed safely, it was later found that the pilots had failed to apply sufficient thrust while landing, which led to a dangerous fall in airspeed. The aircraft also reportedly came in too low and landed well ahead of the touchdown point. Its troubles did not end there. The aircraft suffered a second glitch while moving towards the hangar and had to be towed the rest of the way.

Then, on September 11, an Air India flight from Delhi to New York developed “multiple instrument failure”. With all the on-board systems to assist him to land the aircraft in adverse weather out of order, the pilot, in a remarkable display of skill, somehow managed to land the flight on manual and visual controls in Newark.

Again, on September 19, an IndiGo flight from Mumbai to Ahmedabad made an emergency landing at its destination after a tyre burst. And earlier this month, an Air India flight to Male, Maldives, landed on an under-construction runway.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of the myriad accidents, mishaps and near-misses involving Indian aircraft which are taking place on an almost daily basis. These are the reported ones; many more probably go unnoticed by the public, since they remain confined within an airline or airport operator’s domain.

Thankfully, India has not had too many fatal air crashes involving civilian aircraft, despite being the fastest growing aviation market in the Asia Pacific region. Indian airlines are expected to double their fleet strength from the current 600 or so within a decade. But that admirable record, as many of these incidents show, may be more due to luck or human skill rather than anything systemic.

India’s civil aviation sector is simply growing too fast for safety. Intense competition is forcing airlines to keep their fares low despite surging fuel prices and a falling rupee. This, in turn, is forcing them to “sweat” their assets mercilessly. Aircraft — and the crew operating them — are flying longer hours, making more take-offs and landings (the riskiest periods in a flight) than ever before, and ground crew are forced to “turn around” an aircraft in an increasingly shorter time.

Cutting corners

This means that corners are being cut everywhere — in safety, in maintenance, in repairs and in operations. In a written reply in Parliament in March this year, the Civil Aviation Ministry said that in 2017, nine domestic carriers together reported a total of 24,791 snags. Of course, given the volume of operations — Mumbai and Delhi airports alone handle over 2,000 aircraft movements per day, and the Mumbai-Delhi corridor is the world’s third busiest — snags are to be expected. But the issue is how many of these get attended to immediately, and how close an eye the regulator is keeping on operators to see that they are following the rules.

Airlines, of course, insist that they are following every rule and regulation to the letter, but the reality appears to be otherwise, something which industry insiders confirm off the record. Add to this the breakneck expansion leading to less experience in the cockpit, stretched infrastructure on the ground, and perhaps even untrained pilots in charge (remember the ‘fake pilot’ scam a few years ago?), and the situation becomes explosive.

Improving airside infrastructure

While the landside (the passenger handling area before security) infrastructure has improved a lot over the years, the airside infrastructure may not have kept up. A recent Right to Information-based investigation by ET Prime revealed that Instrument Landing Systems, which aid pilots in landings, in a staggering 98% of Indian airports had lapsed calibration certificates — some, including major metros and even the Prime Minister’s constituency airport of Varanasi which he visits often, for years together. This, when the International Civil Aviation Organisation has mandated the Instrument Landing Systems approach for all landings.

After the latest spate of alarms, Union Civil Aviation Minister Suresh Prabhu ordered a comprehensive safety audit of all airlines, and sought a report within 30 days. That is good but the issue is whether this will be followed up with any seriousness. In the high-risk business of aviation, “grow first, fix later” is simply not an option.

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Printable version | Mar 2, 2021 1:17:37 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/stretched-to-the-limit/article25016562.ece

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