The aviation sector in the country has taken quite the hit after heavy fog descended on north India this past week. Numerous flights have been delayed and several others cancelled in airports across the country, with the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi being the worst hit. Aviation experts say that all flight scheduling is Delhi-centric, for various reasons including the fact that top government officials, MPs, and ministers travel to and from there very often. Hence, delays in takeoff and landing of connecting flights at the Delhi airport can affect flights in airports across the country, in a chain effect.
While the delays and cancellations are being attributed to the cold wave and fog in north India and the resultant low visibility that makes flight takeoffs and landings risky, lack of preparedness in handling such situations also seem to have caused some of the chaos.
Speaking to TNM, aviation expert Captain Mohan Ranganathan said that the extent of the crisis is thanks to poor planning by the airlines and the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), and not just the fog. “It is a fact well known that Delhi experiences foggy weather from December to early February. Those responsible should have begun planning ahead for this at least three- four months back,” he said.
As Mohan pointed out, several factors that contributed to the crisis could have been tackled with sufficient planning. For instance, of the four runways in the Delhi airport, only three are functional now. The fourth has been shut down for repairs and renovation since September last year. The shut down runway is also incidentally one of the two runways in the airport equipped with CAT IIIB instrument landing system, which is a radio navigation system that helps land flights in bad weather. The Delhi airport’s non-functional runway was expected to be opened by December, but got postponed twice. In the light of this week’s mayhem, Union Minister for Civil Aviation Jyotiraditya Scindia has asked the Delhi International Airport Limited (DIAL) to open it at the earliest.
The inordinate delays saw tempers flaring and passengers losing their cool on multiple instances. In the most viral incident, a passenger punched an Indigo pilot who was addressing the flight after a delay of 13 hours, while in a more recent incident, fliers picnicked on the Mumbai airport tarmac in protest after their already delayed flight to Delhi was diverted. Actors Radhika Apte and Ranvir Shorey were among the thousands affected by the disruption.
Aviation consultant Jitendra Bhargava too agreed that the DIAL’s lack of preparedness could have been avoided with sufficient foresight and planning. “The maintenance work should have been undertaken when the weather conditions were better, and not during the period between December and February, which sees foggy weather in Delhi every year,” he said. Mohan said that the ill-timing of the maintenance work is because the aviation industry as a whole is focussed on the tourism season that starts in April, and not on anything else.
Additionally, there have also been allegations regarding deploying sufficient crew. In some cases, the airlines allegedly did not ensure that pilots trained for low visibility conditions were called to work. Low visibility conditions require the pilot to be CAT III rated. In India, not only are all pilots not CAT III trained, co-pilots are unfit to fly until they complete 300 hours of flying, making them ineffectual.
Mohan said that aviation rules and standards in the country are still not up to international standards. “When the duty time of a CAT III pilot expires, the one meant to replace them may not necessarily be CAT III trained, making it impossible to fly. Both captains and co-pilots in other countries are equipped to face all conditions from day one, which is not the case here,” he said.
Jitendra said that saying that further delays were caused to flights due to absence of CAT III pilot replacements is taking a simplistic view. “For a flight to take off in bad weather and low visibility conditions, the runway needs to be CAT III equipped, pilot CAT III trained, and aircraft CAT III compliant. There are multiple factors at play here,” he said.
He also said that the growing nature of the Indian aviation industry puts more strains on it. “More than 130 aircrafts were inducted in total by all airlines in India in the last one year. The country doesn't have a sufficient number of CAT III pilots to match this growth. Grounding staff and training them would mean flight cancellations and exorbitant fares during the interim period,” he argued.
Mohan countered this by saying that airlines should be required to hire and train crew members six months prior to the induction of the flight, and not on the day it begins services.
In other instances, delays at the airport ate into the flight and duty time limits of pilots and cabin crew, creating further complications. Often, by the time a several hours delayed flight is given clearance for take off, the day’s shift of the crew will be over. Aviation rules require mandatory breaks after a certain number of duty hours for crew due to safety reasons.
Mohan said, “Other countries also have standby crews, which we don't. It is not just the airlines to blame, it is also the regulator, DGCA, whose responsibility it is to raise standards to international levels,” he said.
Several passengers were unaware of any delays in their flights until they reached the airport, or in some instances, boarded the plane. This led to airports overflowing with disgruntled passengers and heated exchanges with the ground staff. In Jitendra’s view, “The airports witnessed crowds that were several times larger than what the staff are equipped for, due to the delays. It is only natural that repeated enquiries from passengers make them lose their cool.”
Jitendra further added that there were several operational constraints that made it difficult for airlines to give definitive answers to passengers regarding flights in such a situation. “Passengers need to acknowledge the fact that there is fog and some things are beyond the airlines’ control,” he said.
Both Jitendra and Mohan also pointed to the inconveniences caused to the passengers due to the unreasonably priced food and beverages at airports. “Earlier, when flights were delayed, airlines would give passengers coupons that allowed them to eat at airport restaurants. That is not the norm any more,” Mohan said. Jitendra suggested that the authorities, including the Ministry, should have ensured that passengers were able to avail food at reasonable prices when they have been stuck in the airport for several hours. “How can they be expected to buy a plate of food for ten times its price outside?,” he asked.
Civil Aviation Minister Scindia had called the fog situation unprecedented. But as Mohan pointed out, it is difficult to see what is unprecedented about an annual phenomenon. According to him, several of the issues stem from the fact that officers in both the Civil Aviation Ministry and the DGCA do not possess sufficient know-how regarding the aviation sector.
The week’s chaos cannot be explained off as the results of freak weather. Only fixing accountability and taking planned action can prevent a repeat of this in the coming years, Mohan said.