OPINION: The audience, yes, you, dear flyers, could hardly have asked for more drama. In Delhi, two fully loaded planes, with over 350 humans between them, came within 40 metres of each other on a cold December smoggy morning. Yes, a crash would have statistically made it India’s largest aviation disaster (topping the 349 dead in the 1996 Charkhi Dadri incident).
In faraway balmy Goa, the drama came in the form of a 360° spin on the runway, that led many straight to the hospital.
Did you know there has been a 78% rise in the number of near misses between January and May this year compared to the same period last year. Got up, have you?
Yes, it could have been worse, but let’s please straightway remember the Toyota way – a near miss counts as an accident. Apparently, the Goa incident is being treated as one. No word from DGCA yet on the Delhi drama. The Civil Aviation Minister A Gajapathi Raju has tweeted that “thorough time-bound investigation and corrective action shall be ensured. Action will also be taken in case there is violation of procedures”.
Yes, India has escaped, or indeed been incredibly lucky to escape greater disasters. Of course Indian Railways has made up for it with a fairly regular stream of disasters, big and small.
For Indian aviation, which at a 100 million passengers and growing the fastest among major economies, safety has not often been seen as a priority. Indeed, in January 2014 the US Federal Aviation Administration (USFAA) downgraded of India’s civil aviation sector on safety oversight issues. This order was withdrawn in March 2015. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a global body of airlines, however is slated to visit India in March 2017 to review safety preparedness measures.
In case of the airlines involved – Indigo and Spicejet in Delhi, Jet Airways in Goa, have absolved their staff of any wrongdoing. There is no word on the ATC side.
DGCA has reported 280 air safety incidents till this year till August, and predicted that “the number may rise to more than 400 by the end of 2016, making it the worst in three years for aviation safety”. For entire 2015, the number was 275.
Media reports have repeatedly pointed out the lack of growth in aviation infrastructure to keep pace with demand. To be fair to the sector, this is the situation with other sectors too, notably roadways, power, auto, housing, even cruise tourism.
So dire is the situation that major airports in the country have run of parking capacity or slots for planes. Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru airports are prime examples. Some airlines have even planned growth in other cities, not because there is no demand for flyers to Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru, but because there is no space. Larger planes are alleviating the situation somewhat, and people who have to travel are shelling out big bucks, and unknown to them, taking risks as airlines cut corners.
Most of the violations by airlines included breathalyser testing, flight and duty time limitations (FDTL) breaches and violations of cockpit and cabin discipline rules. DGCA data says 208 irregularities by pilots of various airlines were reported over the last year and 2016, along with 15 irregularities by airlines during the period. In the first ten months this year, 38 pilots and 113 cabin crew tested alcohol-positive during the pre-flight medical examination for consumption of alcohol.
In the past, Raju has admitted that there is some degree of “opaqueness” in the DGCA’s operations. He had also stressed on the need to bring in transparency in the body in the interest of passenger safety and security. A plan to make the DGCA more “responsive” is still on paper however.
An ICAO audit in 2015 raised two ‘Significant Safety Concerns’ in the areas of operations and airworthiness for aviation in India. DGCA has created 21 posts Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau (AAIB), though not all have been filled yet.
Solutions will not come easy though. Air Traffic Control (ATC) are said to be operating at a 25 per cent shortfall, and training staff takes a while. Airport capacity augmentation will similarly take a few years. Human error, that crucial intangible factor – we saw its role in the recent Lamia crash – is under pressure as most airlines are still in the red, and looking to increase income margins.
The fog was literally the shroud offered as an excuse for the Delhi incident. Will such excuses be enough to be prevent greater loss in the future?
Musafir Namah Bureau