Not Mayday, But Indian Civil Aviation Has Its Head In the Clouds

Though the number of midair scares is miniscule compared with total operations, the frequency–and the rate of increase–of the occurrences should set the alarm bells ringing

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A slight midair turbulence is enough to send chills down a passenger's spine, let alone the so-called technical snag. Indian flyers, however, are getting used to flight diversions and emergency landings as snags are becoming the norm, if we may. The government informed Parliament on August 1 that airlines have reported 478 technical snags between July 1, 2021 and June 30 this year.

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Technical snag (defect) means a condition existing in an aircraft (including its systems) or aircraft component arising from any cause other than damage, which would preclude it or another aircraft component from performing their intended functions, said a report.

"During operations, an aircraft may experience technical snags due to malfunctioning of components/equipment fitted on the aircraft which require rectification by the airlines for continued safe, efficient and reliable air transport service. These technical snags are reported by the flight crew on receiving an aural or visual warning in the cockpit or an indication of an inoperative/faulty system or while experiencing difficulty in operating the aircraft," said Jyotiraditya Scindia, minister of civil aviation, in the Lok Sabha in late July.

Insufficient staff?

Taking cognisance of the recent snags, aviation watchdog Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) conducted spot checks and found that there is an insufficient number of engineering personnel certifying planes of various carriers before their departure. Before each departure, an aircraft is checked and certified by an aircraft maintenance engineer (AME). "For the maintenance of narrow body aircraft, as a thumb rule, we require 03 B1 and 02 B2 AMEs per aircraft for line maintenance," said Lalit Gupta, former joint director general, DGCA.

According to a DGCA safety-related report released in 2021, it was found during surveillance that some certifying staff undergoing refresher training were also found involved in aircraft maintenance/certification activities.

"Certainly, there is a skill gap. It is a function of many things including the non-availability of skilled manpower, especially with precision skill sets, the inability of the industry to recruit such personnel commanding high salaries, etc. This gap can be mitigated as the industry is taking baby steps for growth in the post-COVID-19 times. Let us hope these measures will help the industry which is gradually coming out of post-COVID blues," said Dr. Mahesh Y. Reddy, director general, Infrastructure Industry and Logistics Federation of India (ILFI), a lobby group.

Commenting on the AMEs training institutes, V.P. Agrawal, former chairman of Airport Authority of India, said, "Mediocre training institutes for AMEs impart training without proper lab facilities. Even the number of such substandard training institutes are not adequate. As a result, they churn out ill-trained so-called aircraft engineers. They learn by mistake on the field which is a dangerous situation and to which everyone is turning a blind eye."

Not alarming enough?

When compared with the number of departures and the extent of operations, experts say that the number of these snags is not alarming.

"In any case, to me 478 snags appears to be a reasonable number when compared with the total number of departures during the period from 1 July 2021 to 30 June 2022, which were around 862,128, as per DGCA data. Certainly the figure of 478 snags is not alarming keeping in view the extent of operations," said Gupta.

Commenting on the probable causes, Reddy said, "It boils down to a lack of technical personnel to spot such glitches on time and take remedial measures. The industry's point of view is that some of the glitches are very inconsequential. Yet, there should not be any laxity in addressing such safety, security lapses. DGCA should also be proactive in ensuring compliance with zero-tolerance."

Apart from the technical snags, this year has seen four serious incidents till July 25. There were 25 serious incidents reported in 2019, DGCA data shows.

A serious incident is defined as an one involving circumstances indicating that there was a high probability of an accident and is associated with the operation of an aircraft.

"Merely four serious incidents during the period 1 January 2022 to 25 July 2022 do not signify any alarming safety issue or abnormal trend. But we need to conduct root-cause analysis of all the occurences and take preventive steps to avoid their recurrence," said Gupta.

Emphasizing on the importance of MRO facilities in order to avoid such incidents/serious incidents, Reddy said, "Maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) facilities should come up in a big way in the country in all the designated centers. The government policy is to create more and more MRO across the country for catering to both domestic and foreign airlines so as to emerge as a repair hub."

As per a 2021 Deloitte report, India at present outsources 90 per cent MRO services to countries such as Singapore, the UAE, and Sri Lanka. India's MRO industry was estimated at $1.7 billion in size in 2021. It is expected to reach $4.0 billion by 2031 at a compounded growth rate of 8.9 per cent. However, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India reported that, at present, the country's MRO ecosystem is not yet ready to meet the frequent maintenance needs of aircraft.

Overworked fleet?

The role of over-aged aircraft and the tendency to use aircraft for a longer duration cannot be ignored in these circumstances. "Aircraft are used for a longer time and are released to meet the commitment of the sector without actually being satisfied. This is a recipe for disaster and airlines have to boldly support the right decision," said Agrawal.

As per Reddy, "We have to take into consideration the over-aged aircraft in India which are prone to increased repair and maintenance."

There are airlines which have large fleets such as Indigo and Air India. There are players with a lesser number of aircraft such as Vistara, Air Asia (in domestic operations), Akasa, etc. "The economics of the aviation sector is very different from the rest, as the margins are very thin, and they have to press aircraft into service very often resulting in increased stress on the machines. Furthermore, there are underserved or unserved destinations which may not be profitable to airlines, which compels them to focus more on the relatively profitable routes and not necessarily on every available air route," Reddy added.

The issues of non-availability of spares can also lead to technical snags. "At present, industry-wide utilization of aircraft is around 12-14 hours. As such, we cannot say that aircraft are over utilized. However, few airlines may have issues of non-availability of spares which can result in recurrence of technical snags," Gupta added.

"Airlines in financial distress do not maintain sufficient stock of spares resulting in delay or non replacement," pointed out Agrawal, the former chairman of AAI.

Flight path

For most of the past three years, the aviation industry had been at a standstill. It's only been a few months since the lifting of lockdown curbs that the airlines have resumed operations seamlessly. As a consequence, there could be operational, manpower and financial problems. "But in the case of ground-level staff, most of the operations can be carried out digitally as it is being done now, seamless travel without having to check-in manually, digital identification of the passengers, entry through barcode scanning post-check-in, etc.," said Reddy.

Nevertheless, the compounding effect of COVID-19 cannot be ruled out. "COVID-19 led to layoffs, compounding the situation. Staff moved on in life and did not come back leading to shortages. Besides, in order to maximize profit there is a tendency to pay less to crew and support staff. In such a sensitive industry, it can play havoc," said Agrawal.

Airlines are moving towards automation and effectively reducing the manpower requirements. "Since airports are insisting on noiseless environics, it is quite natural that airlines may adopt Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet-of-Things (IoTs), chatbots, etc., for automating and making the services safer. All these initiatives are leading to automation and effectively reducing the manpower requirements in various operations of the civil aviation sector," Reddy added.