Turbulence in the airspace

A financial audit carried out by the DGCA revealed suppliers and vendors of the carrier were not being paid on time, which was leading to a shortage of spare parts.
Representative image
Representative image

NEW DELHI: The Indian airspace was wracked by a bout of turbulence, whose aftershocks have been felt for the past few weeks now. Recently, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) instructed a low cost carrier to operate a maximum of only 50% of its fleet strength for two months after many of the airliner’s aircraft reported technical malfunctions — as many as eight incidents between June 19 and July 5. A financial audit carried out by the DGCA revealed suppliers and vendors of the carrier were not being paid on time, which was leading to a shortage of spare parts. During the probation, the budget carrier will be subjected to enhanced scrutiny by the DGCA, which issued a show cause notice to the airliner.

Passenger confidence has taken a hit as the aviation regulator’s Director General Arun Kumar flew into damage control mode stating that India’s civil aviation space is safe and that snags faced by domestic carriers did not have the potential to cause havoc. Kumar underscored that protocols laid down by the International Civil Aviation Organisation are also followed. The DGCA had earlier this year, issued a safety directive to all airlines when spot checks revealed shortcomings in maintenance related SOPs and shortage of trained manpower to check and certify each airplane before takeoff.

While the reassurances have offered some consolation to the aviation industry, the numbers paint a different picture. As many as 478 technical snags were reported between Jul 1, 2021 and June 30, 2022. And between Apr 1 and Jun 30 this year, around 150 incidents involving component and system malfunction were reported. Industry veterans argue that a majority of these issues were of a non-critical nature, and that even foreign airlines that arrived in India recently have reported about 15 technical snags. But that is not an invitation to take such issues lightly. An RTI investigation by a media house revealed that over the past five years, 162 breach of separation incidents have taken place in Indian airspace, which averages to about 32 incidents annually. The term refers to a situation where two aircraft come within a greater proximity of each other, than the prescribed mandatory vertical or horizontal distance separating them in the airspace.

Earlier this year, a major tragedy was averted in Bengaluru airport when two flights of a budget carrier almost collided moments after take-off. The timely intervention of an ATC staffer who diverted the aircraft ensured that 400 people lived to see another day. Neither was this incident recorded in a logbook, nor did the Airports Authority of India intimate the DGCA about it. The regulator has said that based on investigations, actions will be initiated and these included corrective training, suspension as well as issuance of warnings against the erring crew or Air Traffic Management officials.

The aviation industry in India is a competitive arena that leaves little room for profitability. The fare caps (ceilings) as well as high rate of tax on Aviation Turbine Fuel leaves companies with little leg for manoeuvring when it comes to dispersal of employee benefits. This explains the higher than normal attrition and burnout rates in the industry.

In the absence of action from the airlines, experts in the aviation industry have called for the creation of an alternative system to ensure a greater number of technicians to be trained in handling different types of aircraft, which will increase the talent pool. The shortage of experts in the DGCA is also an acknowledged problem, with just about a few airworthiness officers having more than 15 years of experience, thanks to the last recruitment done in 2012-13. The country’s civil aviation policy needs to be revisited, and a considerable overhauling might be necessary to bring the industry up to speed, and up to safety.

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