Thursday, August 11, 2022

Survey Indicates SpiceJet & IndiGo Face Growing Passenger Discontent; DGCA’s Wrath Unleashed Too

By Aritra Banerjee & Vaibhav Agrawal

Indian aviation industries have been racing to compensate for the income they lost during the pandemic ever since the skies re-opened for commercial travel. The haste definitely seems to have left some waste in the sector. It is also evident that IndiGo and SpiceJet are at the forefront of multiple ill-events that have come to characterise the Indian flying experience.

The most recent one of these events made it to international news platforms on 2 July, 2022 when as many as 55 per cent of IndiGo’s flights were delayed. According to a report citing data from the aviation ministry, the reason behind this tardiness was a large number of cabin crew members taking sick leave. The report speculated that the widespread sick leave was caused by an Air India recruitment drive.

This is the first time in decades that a private airline has experienced such significant absences. The last time there was such a substantial disruption of schedules was in 2009, when Jet Airways pilots called in sick in protest. Back then, the conflict between management and the cabin crew had caused the entire affair.

But IndiGo was not the only Indian airline dealing with unfortunate circumstances that day. In what was noted to be at least the fifth air safety incident involving a SpiceJet plane in the last two months, a flight travelling between Delhi and Jabalpur made a May Day call due to smoke in the cabin. The pilots managed to get the aeroplane back to Delhi safely. The events of 2 July stirred debate and served as a wake-up call for personnel and customers in the Indian aviation industry. It was clear from the state of matters that for Indian aviation, “all is not well.”

SpiceJet & Its Series Of Unfortunate Events

Yet, the events of 2 July were not the first or the last of their kind. For SpiceJet, it was one mid-air emergency among at least eight other recent ones. On 5 July, the airline’s Delhi-Dubai flight had to be diverted to Karachi because of the fuel indicator malfunctioning. On the same day, a SpiceJet plane travelling from Gujarat to Mumbai reportedly ended up with a crack in its windshield at 23,000 feet.

This forced the aircraft to make an emergency landing. A spokesperson from the company told the media that the pressurisation was observed to be normal. The wise decisions made by the crew prevented any serious damage to the people and the aircraft. Few people know that cracks in cockpit windshields on aeroplanes won’t cause them to break.

The next day did not provide any respite to the troubled airline either. On 6 July, a Kolkata-bound Boeing 737 freighter was forced to return due to malfunctioning weather radar. These were just the chronicles of the first week of July; but SpiceJet flights have been giving passengers a hard time since earlier.

For instance, 17 passengers were hurt on 1 May when a 737-800 carrying 195 passengers from Mumbai to Durgapur encountered severe turbulence at the height of 16,000 feet. On descent and approach, there may be air turbulence, and it may be challenging. It would be unfair to accuse the carrier of negligence in this incident, especially if all reasonable precautions had been taken. Yet, SpiceJet’s poor record in recent times cast aspersions on the turbulence event as well.

On 3 May, not only did an engine malfunction force flight SG 2871 from
Mumbai to Kishangarh to abort the takeoff, but SpiceJet flight SG 331 from Chennai for Durgapur also had to turn around an hour after launch due to an in-flight engine failure.

All the incidents mentioned above-raised alarms and sparked a discussion about safety issues in the fast-expanding Indian aviation industry. What is also to be noted was that the crew’s prompt response rendered the element of risk to the passengers and the aircraft null and void. Each was a sensible response to a predicament that had the potential to develop into a crisis. But SpiceJet’s misfortune is not limited to mid-air incidents alone.

Troubles With DGCA

As with other airlines around the globe, signs of pandemic-induced trouble for SpiceJet were visible from last year onwards when a portion of the carrier’s staff went on strike in September and then in November, to protest non-payment of salaries. These strikes saw active involvement from the maintenance department and security workers. The company’s high command maintained that they had resolved the issues related to employees’ pay following negotiations.

The airline also came under the radar of aviation authorities regarding pilot training. In April, the DGCA barred 90 SpiceJet pilots from the Boeing 737 Max aircraft, ordering them to be retrained. This decision was taken after the DGCA found lapses at a simulator training centre in the Noida-based CAE Simulation Training Pvt Ltd (CSTPL) facility. CSTPL is a joint venture between the Canada-based CAE and IndiGo promoter Rahul Bhatia’s Interglobe Enterprise.

DGCA’s surveillance team found a problem with the stick shaker- an instrument which shudders rapidly in the event of the aircraft being unable to lift itself. The authority noted that the simulator’s stick shaker on the commander’s side was working fine, but the one on the first officer’s side was non-functional.

Since the system has been non-functional since March 17, all co-pilots trained on this simulator were directed to undergo the extra two hours of training again. “Training being imparted by SpiceJet could have adversely affected flight safety and was nullified,” DGCA said.

End of last month, the aviation watchdog also imposed a fine amounting to ₹10 lakh on SpiceJet for training its pilots on a faulty simulator. Boeing provided the simulator to SpiceJet as part of a compensation package for losses caused by the worldwide two-year grounding of the 737 Max following two deadly accidents.

SpiceJet also recently received flak from customers for lack of proper communication about flight delays due to a ransomware attack. In a recent survey of around 15,000 Indian fliers conducted by LocalCircles, this low-cost airline was deemed to have the most unsatisfactory service of the major airlines in India.

SpiceJet did not respond to IA&D’s request for comment on the survey results or the fine imposed by DGCA at the time of publication. If received, responses will be added as rejoinders.

IndiGo Faces Its Own Turbulence

Woes are similar for India’s largest airline, IndiGo, which has faced strikes by various sections of its employees from last year onwards. In April 2021, workers of Agile, a subsidiary of IndiGo, went on strike in Goa, demanding an immediate salary hike. The carrier also recently suspended pilots planning to strike to protest pay cuts.

IndiGo invited the wrath of customers and netizens last month when its employees refused to let a specially-abled teenager board a flight at the Ranchi airport, telling the child’s guardians that he was a risk to other fliers. An eyewitness report stated that the staff told the family that they would not let them on board unless the child behaved “normally”.

The company expressed regret regarding this incident and offered the youngster an electric wheelchair as a token of appreciation. Jyotiraditya Scindia, the Minister of Civil Aviation, noted the incident. Shortly after that, the DGCA imposed a penalty of ₹5 lakh on IndiGo for handling the incident.

The LocalCircles survey mentioned earlier revealed that IndiGo ranked second on parameters of unsatisfactory service for customers. When asked about the airlines’ perspective on the results of this survey, IndiGo said, “as per the DGCA reports, which capture actual passenger data, IndiGo has had one of the lowest average
rates of complaints from FY2019-20 to FY 2021-22 (less than two complaints every 1,00,000 passengers), despite the magnitude of the operations.

Additionally, a travel partner’s consumer survey indicates that IndiGo has been consistently the foremost airline in India concerning client servicing. Owing to our services, the customers are appreciative of the measures that we have taken to ensure a safe, on-time and hassle-free flying experience. We have many more thank you messages than complaints.

At IndiGo, we continue to focus on digitisation to ensure a contactless travel experience for consumers. The intervention of technology at every step of the process, from check-in to boarding and beyond, has helped reduce waiting time at the airport for our customers. We are committed to providing a trusted and reliable flying experience to our customers and building one of the best air transportation systems in the world.” The carrier did not comment on the fine levied by the DGCA.

A Wounded Industry Trying To Recover

These occurrences involving India’s two most significant airlines cannot be seen in a vacuum as they highlight the dangers and difficulties Indian aviation faces. What might be the causes that the majority of specialists appear to concentrate in a sector that is so heavily controlled? Are Indian operators in such a rush to regain passenger levels from before the COVID? Is the industry experiencing a severe human resource shortage, or does the rapid route expansion require compromises? To ensure that safety regulations are not violated, it is worthwhile to do more research.

Recent events surrounding SpiceJet and IndiGo have pointed towards growing problems that customers face with these carriers. Both these airlines topped in clients’ dissatisfaction books, and they seem to have also garnered the wrath of aviation watchdog, the DGCA. The post-pandemic period’s unique situation presents multiple obstacles to the material and human resources at the disposal of these carriers.

While these airlines have been scurrying to fill the gaps in their aircraft maintenance and customer service, Indian air-travellers have become increasingly frustrated with the nation’s airlines. Their primary concern? The sharp deterioration in customer service standards and the poor behaviour of airline staff in the wake of Covid-19. In fact, around 79% of the respondents thought that Indian carriers were compromising passenger comfort and cutting corners due to the pandemic.

Flight delays, and in-flight service, including meals and entertainment, were the top two reasons behind customer dissatisfaction. Boarding, check-in procedures, and baggage handling bagged the third spot of patrons’ vexation. This development had damaged the reopening of the country’s aviation market- the fastest-growing in the world before Covid struck.

The Blame Divided

It is evident that while the pace of domestic travel is picking up, the standard of service is yet to catch up and reach pre-pandemic levels. Analysts believe that incessant delays and flight cancellations, alongside increasing technical glitches, add to customers’ frustration. The blame, they believe, is perhaps to be shared by all agents and factors: the airline and their promoters, the lack of recurrent training, lack of workforce and low employee morale due to pay cuts, as well as the lack of authorised scrutiny.

Indian aviation analyst Prashant Prabhakar told IA&D, “cash strapped airlines are slowly getting back on their feet after a tumultuous period of grounding. It will take some time before they gradually get back to the level of service they had been providing. After a long hiatus, airlines must only impart recurrent training so that the front line executives get back into the groove as before.”

He further highlighted that India is a price-sensitive market dominated by Low-Cost Carriers (LCCs). Here, customer satisfaction becomes an immensely important factor. However, Prabhakar added, “safety is paramount in aviation- definitely not a place where costs should take priority over safety. Non-compliance to basic/minimal SOPs should be dealt with seriously and never overlooked.”

Other analysts agree with the belief that passenger safety is of utmost importance and should never be compromised. “The fact that SpiceJet continued training its pilots on a faulty simulator is not only shocking but also reflects the level of thought that has gone into passenger safety,” Veteran aviation journalist and analyst Vijay Grover said.

Grover believes that 5 or 10 lakhs as a fine is nothing for an airline whose revenue generation is in terms of thousands of crores. “Ideally, they should have faced stricter disciplinary action so that it sends a strong message across. The case of special needs child not being allowed to board and the penalty area are just a case in hand to highlight the insensitivity of the airline towards people with special needs and mobility issues. We in India see this happen once too often and facilitating such passengers boarding and deboarding is never prioritised.” He suggests that DGCA and the government should also ensure that the airlines sensitise the staff other than the fine.

The policy of carriers like GoAir, IndiGo, and Spicejet, which charge ₹200 for check-in at airports if a client has not done web check-in, is currently under scrutiny. Customers have found this extra charge absurd. Meanwhile, DGCA has also levied a fine of ₹10 lakh for letting a pilot who had not finished requisite training on a simulator land an aircraft with passengers on board at the Indore airport. Such incidents paint a grim picture of passenger experience onboard Indian carriers and ring alarm bells related to air safety.

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