Thursday, August 11, 2022

No Airline Is Cavalier About Air Safety

By Bikram Vohra

Bikram Vohra, Consulting Editor

On 6 July, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) issued a harsh notice to SpiceJet following the carrier’s rather worrying series of incidents. On the Tuesday before three incidents occurred that prompted this measure even as the carrier’s management was told that there should be no compromise on air safety.

Flight SG 3324 en route from Kandla in Gujarat was forced to make a diversion and an emergency landing at Mumbai after its windshield cracked at 23,000 feet altitude. The flight crew made the right decision and the pressurisation was not adversely affected. Few people know that airplane cockpit windshields are designed to remain intact if there is a crack.

On the same day another scheduled SpiceJet flight en route to Dubai from Delhi sprung a fuel leak and had to be diverted to Karachi as a precautionary measure. Not much after a Boeing 737 freighter aircraft that took off from Kolkata returned because of an unserviceable weather radar. Each was a reasonable response to a situation that could have turned into a crisis. Thanks to timely action by the crew the element of jeopardy to passengers and aircraft was avoided.

On 1 May a 737-800 with 195 pax from Mumbai to Durgapur hit massive turbulence at 16000 feet causing injuries to 17 passengers. Air turbulence on descent and approach can occur and it can be severe. To indict the carrier for negligence in this incident would be uncharitable especially if all precautions had been taken.

Two days later Flight SG 2871 from Mumbai to Kishangarh had to abort its take-off because of engine trouble. On the same day, SpiceJet flight SG 331 took off from Chennai for Durgapur and had to return an hour after take-off because of an engine shutdown in-flight. In another mid-air incident de Havilland Dash 8 flight SG-2962 from Delhi to Jabalpur was climbing to cruise when the cabin filled with smoke. The flight rose to 14000 feet and as the smoke had intensified the crew turned back to Delhi and landed safely.

Pressure on the carrier increased after the DGCA promised a thorough check of the SpiceJet fleet and Rajya Sabha member of Parliament, Priyanka Chaturvedi sent out a rather harsh tweet on the airline: “Another engine issue, the airline is the same. DGCA and the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) are whiling away their time to take a call on the safety aspect of the aircrafts. Will only a tragedy wake them up to seek accountability?” And that caused a stir.

Certainly, every such incident must be investigated and there is little doubt that Spice must engage in due diligence. Not to do so goes so against the grain of aviation that it is not even on the cards on the radar. “From the above it may be deduced that SpiceJet has failed to establish safe, efficient, and reliable air services under terms of Rule 134 and Schedule XI of the Aircraft Rules, 1937.

Now, therefore, the Accountable Manager of SpiceJet, is hereby called upon to show cause within three weeks of receipt of this notice as to why action should not be taken against the airline,” the DGCA wrote. The SpiceJet boss, Ajay Singh replied instantly and reassured the authority that air safety was always the prime priority and would stay so.

Safety parameters per se would then be well in hand if this was all. But it is not so with this carrier. It has had an extraordinary series of problems with its fleet and one would like to rack it up to sheer unfortunate coincidence and not negligence. Even so, 8 separate issues in 18 days are not normal. Although about 30 incidents are reported in India per day they are, by and large, accepted as par for the course and not a real danger. Modern aircraft have multiple backup and stand by systems that can kick in when there is a problem.

The DGCA clearly had a busy week. A Vistara flight from Bangkok to Delhi, reported an engine failure after landing. Indigo denied reports that its A320 neo flight from Raipur to Indore detected smoke in the cabin. “A Raipur-Indore IndiGo flight (A320Neo aircraft) was reported by the cabin crew to have smoke coming out from its cabin during Taxi In after landing, yesterday, July 5,” DGCA said. On the first Tuesday of July there were three SpiceJet incidents and one Go Air that called for emergency landings.

There were also three bird hits on separate aircraft involving SpiceJet and IndiGo.
Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard (BASH) is a common phenomenon in our skies and an average of four hits a day is normal causing much costs but then that’s the price we pay for invading their natural habitat.

While the DGCA cannot be faulted for initiating action and asking why these many occurrences in the interest of safety there is no cause for panic. What is of most interest at this juncture is the pressure being placed on the aviation industry by the sudden surge in traffic and the ironica shortage of trained staff post the Covid pandemic. A large number of staff in all departments were let go in the two years of Covid freeze and many have not come back. This is a global problem and is hitting the airlines hard.

These are some of the elements currently in the mix. The influx of passengers has increased exponentially for this holiday season. Airports are crammed and here is a quote from aviation spotter DW on the situation in Europe just to give you an idea of how the forced grounding for two years has resulted in a public desire to be on the move with enough disposable income.

Strikes and staff shortages have led to the cancellation of thousands of flights and frustratingly long lines at airports as people rush to fly to their dream destinations after being grounded during the pandemic for the past two years. “We are angry because we are on vacation. We organised everything and came five hours early. It’s simply a waste of time. We could be doing something else,” a passenger lining up at Düsseldorf Airport told DW. “My neighbour works at the airport, and he said it was because of a lack of security personnel — and that’s stupid. You pay a lot of money for your flight, so it’s annoying if you miss it,” another traveller said.

The logjams at European hubs such as Frankfurt, London and Paris are also threatening to take the shine off the aviation industry’s recovery from its pandemic lows in 2020, when it lost more than $230 billion (€219 billion) — hurt by lockdowns and travel restrictions. The cheerfully waving bottom line is an allure the number crunchers cannot resist. Get the money back is the mantra.

This spike is so sharp that airlines are unable to cope with the demand. As such, turnaround times, extra flights and fast paced maintenance will cause problems. Aircraft can take a lot of punishment but when there is this kind of pressure to get the plane to the bay in a hurry there will be compromises. The human factor does kick in and mistakes are made.

The same stress applies to air traffic control. A Thales statement while marketing its systems does make a valid point: Soon planes will be competing for airspace with drones and other UAVs, “air taxis (four-passenger commuter vehicles), supersonic transport, more satellite launches and military missions, or vehicles being sent up by Amazon, Facebook and others. Adding to the pressure on controllers is the tremendous growth in commercial air traffic, the need to redirect traffic quickly to avoid severe weather conditions, as well as a void concerning traffic regulation
of drones.

The immediacy with which news of an incident is spread makes it seem much worse than it is. Now, all aircraft have a Minimum Equipment List which allows them to ‘Go’ even if some of the systems are not working and safety in such situations is not compromised. This is deduced from the Master Minimum Equipment list (MMEL). The MEL is approved by the operator’s national airworthiness authorities. There is also a snag sheet updated by pilots after every flight for engineering and maintenance to take appropriate steps.

How swiftly the snag sheet is being dealt with and how well the MEL limitations are being observed is a factor that often gets side tracked when there is a rush to get the plane in the sky. Between the demands to reduce delay and get the passengers on the seats the whole system is taut and stretched to the limit. During August and the rest of July the numbers game will hold the industry at happy ransom and it is here that every carrier has to be careful not to cut corners.

Another matter of concern is the fact that Covid has not vanished. The massive spurt in travel is a risk and we might see numbers rising again especially if passengers are careless in their protection. These protocols and the possibility of increased checks and tests add to the delays and the holiday may be fun but getting there isn’t going to be easy.

Bikram Vohra is a Consulting Editor with Indian Aerospace & Defence

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