Friday, August 12, 2022

A Wake-Up Call For Civil Aviation

By Vijay Grover

Vijay Grover
Vijay Grover, Editor

While the 8 incidents involving SpiceJet in recent weeks rang alarm bells, it opened up a debate which needs to happen on safety concerns in a rapidly growing Indian Aviation Sector. What happened on 2, July 2022, triggered a debate in the Indian aviation sector, which sounded like a wake-up call for all industry professionals and passengers. “All is Not Well” was a clear message from the Indian skies.

Indian aviation companies are in a race to catch up with lost profits since the reopening of the skies for regular travel. The delay of over 55% of Indigo flights on 2 July 2022 made international headlines; it was the first time in decades that a private airline had seen such large-scale absences. Such large-scale disruption of schedules was last witnessed when the Jet Airways pilots, in protest, called in sick in 2009. The reasons then were discord between management and cabin crew.

A report citing aviation ministry data said 55 percent of IndiGo’s domestic flights were behind schedule as a significant number of cabin crew members took sick leave; the report said the mass leave was likely due to an Air India recruitment drive. On the same day, a SpiceJet flight operating on the Delhi-Jabalpur route made a May Day call when smoke was detected in the cabin, and the pilots returned to Delhi safely. This was the fifth midair emergency involving a SpiceJet flight in just sixty days, followed by an emergency landing on the Delhi Dubai-bound Boeing 737 Max 8 at Karachi airport in Pakistan.

These incidents involving India’s two largest carriers cannot be taken in isolation, as they expose the risks and challenges that Indian aviation is operating under. In an industry that is so highly regulated, what could possibly be the reasons that most experts seem to be focusing on. Are Indian operators in such a hurry to reach pre-covid levels of passenger numbers? Is the rapid route expansion forcing compromises, or is the sector under a severe human resources crunch? It is
worth digging deeper to ensure that safety standards are not compromised.

Indian domestic aviation reported that in May 2022, Indian airline companies reported a 22.5% higher number of passengers flown than the same period in 2021. The growth signs are there; however, the aviation companies that have added new routes do not have enough workforce and infrastructure resources to meet the rapid demand.

There is no doubt that, like every operator in the world, Indian operators too plunged into the red during the height of the pandemic. It is also no secret that sustained cost-cutting measures introduced during Covid times are affecting efficiency in the ramp-up period, and employee satisfaction in most airline operators is at this time particularly low. Undoubtedly, the UDAN scheme rolled out with truly good intentions, for regional connectivity is a game-changer. It allows for connectivity to tier 2 and tier 3 cities.

The scheme, which currently operates around 420 routes in India, is a dream come true in terms of affordability, but as far as the industry is concerned, the rapid expansion targets are making companies stretch their resources, and some may be taking very high risks. The number of operational airports today stands at 67,
while in principle, clearance has been given for 154 operational airports in India, which includes the government calling for setting up 21 new greenfield airports across the country.

The target for rapid expansion is becoming a cause of concern. While the bidding process is relatively the most straightforward task on the agenda, putting resources on the ground has now caused an immense challenge for several small operators. The case in hand is that Gurugram-based FlyBig Airlines, launched with much fanfare, is now notorious for high cancellation rates forcing the AAI to seek cancellation of permits for UDAN.

With a rapid buoyancy fuelled by the re-entry of Jet Airways, the launch of Akasa Air, and the rejig at recently privatised Air India, job opportunities which were stagnant during covid times are now back online. However, the availability of skilled and well-trained staff continues to cause problems. Training is an integral part of the entry of staff into service, and this could take up to several months before staff are brought online to work under supervision. The story is the same with the ground, cabin, cockpit and maintenance crew. India stares at a scenario where it has a shortfall of 600-800 pilots per year.

Some recent steps taken by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) have raised questions on how the industry proposes to meet the shortage of adequately trained pilots. The recent suspension of 90 Boeing 737 Max trained pilots at a faulty SpiceJet installed simulator was an eye-opener, the irregularities reported at several flight training organisations exposed the dubious
standards for pilot training.

The incident of mass sick leave at Indigo raised a red flag on the existing staff shortage. The industry knows that with the entry of Akasa Air and the revival of Jet Airways, a rush to retain talent will see a spike in salaries and thus a burden on operational costs. With about 1200 pilots required, Indian FTOs can cater to only 300-400 cadet pilot demand, and airline companies may be forced to hire foreign pilots. The foreign pilots come at much higher costs than their Indian
counterparts.

The spurt of incidents involving SpiceJet in the last few weeks, including smoke in the cabin of a Bombardier on the Delhi-Jabalpur route and the recent diversion to Karachi of the Delhi-Dubai flight, has raised the levels of fear in many minds. SpiceJet faced three serious mid-air incidents in the first week of July.

The DGCA stepped in swiftly, issued a show-cause notice to the airline, and sought an explanation for all 8 incidents involving SpiceJet flights in recent weeks. The notice asked SpiceJet to look into and explain the charges of shortage of spare parts and delay in payment to its vendors, which has forced the airline to compromise on safety factors.

Aviation regulator DGCA issued a show-cause notice Wednesday to SpiceJet after its planes reported eight technical malfunctions over the past 18 days as airline chief Ajay Singh said many of these incidents are “minor” in nature but assured the
carrier will be “doubly careful” and strengthen aircraft inspection. In its notice to SpiceJet, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) said the airline has failed to “establish safe, efficient and reliable air services” under Rule 134 and Schedule XI of the Aircraft Rules, 1937.

Ajay Singh, chief of SpiceJet, told PTI that none of the incidents that occurred in the last few weeks has anything to do with a shortage of spare parts. “This is an audit that they are referring to from last year (September 2021) that they had done. The
aviation sector has been under a great deal of stress. That does not mean that there can be any compromise on safety.” Fearing stronger action, SpiceJet management assured DGCA that its team would set up additional inspections of aircraft before they take off. It also assured the regulator that its officers would cooperate with the DGCA to enhance passenger safety.

One must seriously ask, do such assurances merely translate into words well enough? Are industry-established regulations being strictly adhered to? Are officials seeking stricter measures? Are airlines being clearly regulated or is the focus more on meeting KPIs the target amongst industry regulators and the airlines? These are
crucial questions that need to be answered. Progress at the cost of inefficiency is never the answer. While some of the larger airlines have been reined in due to the recent incidents, several snags usually go unreported due to a low-level severity since operators are concerned about the impact on their reputation and image.

While issues continue to dog operators in India, many experts feel that the time is right to do a SWOT analysis of the sector operations before setting any more ambitious targets that may pressure the aviation industry. Many believe that the over 6% growth in traffic predicted for the next 20 years may have severe consequences if such development is built on a weak and unreliable infrastructure; only, in this case, we will pay with human life, which is invaluable.

Vijay Grover is the Editor of Indian Aerospace & Defence

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