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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2790

Aviation blues

By Tushar Charan - Syndicate Features

The merger of two private airlines has hogged more limelight than the malfunctioning of two aircraft of the national carriers in quick succession resulting in a narrow shave for some 300 passengers. The unrelated events bring into focus two important aspects of the aviation scene in the country--and also how it has remained neglected for long.

One, the safety concerns arising out of the ageing fleet of Indian (formerly Indian Airlines) and Air India, which are awaiting merger; two, the slow pace of fleet replacement.

Let it be said straightaway that the word ‘ageing fleet’ as such should not raise undue alarm about passenger safety. Most military aircraft in India and in many other countries, including the US, are of longer vintage than the civilian aircraft. Perhaps passenger aircraft older than five or 10 years constitute the majority of fleets around the world because, needless to say, buying new aircraft is a very expensive business and an aircraft is not something that you buy off the shelf.

Yet, the fleet of older aircraft, obviously, does cause concern because of the number of ‘near miss’ variety of accidents in the country. While the competence of Indian engineers and technicians is not in doubt what is suspect is the quality of supervision and discipline in observing all the maintenance rules to inculcate a better sense of safety.

The safety of ageing aircraft is a multi-level job. It requires not only additional inspection and specific maintenance but cooperation between the regulator, manufacturer, maintenance crew, the operators and the owners and so on. There has to be a continuous airworthiness programme and supplementary inspections for adequate maintenance. It is a combination of these factors than minimises the consequences from flying older planes.

In one of the two accidents, a hydraulic failure was reported by an Air India plane, coming from Shanghai, via Bangkok, as it was getting ready to land at Delhi. The 20-year-old Airbus, an A-310, with 183 passengers did manage to land after three attempts when its landing gear snapped. As it was being towed its nose-wheel collapsed on the tarmac, resulting in a long chain of delayed flight arrivals and departures. At least 100 flights were affected. In the second accident also caused by hydraulic problem, another Air India plane, a Boeing 767, coming from Dubai could land only after two abortive attempts.

Replying to the outcry, a civil aviation ministry spokesman, remarked, according to reports, despite the snags reported in the two aircraft, ‘all the planes in use are airworthy.’ But is that reassuring enough?

The age of aircraft with the national Indian carriers is between 13 and 20 years while European carriers generally start to replace fleet that is more than 5 or 10 year old. It was safety concern about older aircraft that recently saw Pakistani civil aircraft banned form landing in most major European airports and all the protests from Islamabad, a ‘frontline’ ally of the world’s most powerful nation, were dismissed. If India escaped that harsh punishment it was only because its fleet on the European route is not as old as the Pakistani fleet is.
Ageing fleet require increased structural inspection and maintenance that enable the company to operate economically and safely. The damage caused by fatigue cracks has to be repaired and wherever necessary replaced quickly. Aircraft structures have life limits, requiring major re-work to prevent serious damage. However, there are methods for retarding damages like cracks and extend the fatigue period and damage tolerance.

The two national carriers do have a programme to replace the old fleet. In the next four years, Indian (still better known by its former name Indian Airlines) is to acquire 43 aircraft while Air India has booked 68 new generation aircraft. The planes have started arriving. But the reality is that the life of at least a third of the fleet of these two carriers is close to 20 years or more. Air India’s A-310 fleet is 13 to 20-year old. Out of Indian’s fleet of 74 aircraft, the average age of 48 A-320s and 11 Boeing 737s is 20 years. Indian also has the distinction of flying three A-300s that are about 25 years old.

The fleet owned by the private players is said to be younger in comparison. Now the merger of Jet Airways and Sahara would push the new company to the number one slot in terms of fleet strength. While rivals have questioned the wisdom of the Jet Airways pumping in about Rs 1500 crore for acquisition of Sahara, the new company is sure to enjoy its elevated status which may see it become the leader in a fast growing and lucrative market.

Passengers may not be upbeat about the merger because it may work against the possibility of lower fares. The Jet- Sahara deal also suggests that smaller players have to watch out for a number of dangers. They will have to withstand a bigger competition from two big airlines —one state owned and the other private. They also face a bigger danger of poaching of flying and ground staff by the private behemoth. The merger will also test the government’s capacity to enforce regulations not just for safety and fair practices but also operations in far-flung corners of the country.

The spurt in the civil aviation industry has highlighted the crying need for improving the infrastructure and strengthening both the ground staff and the flying crew. Congestion at the runway at Delhi airport is a regular feature, forcing many flights to needless delay in landing. It is said that the control tower at Delhi does not have enough manpower to meet the rush of flights. If true, this is an area that needs urgent attention.

In recent years, a new international airport seems to be opening in the country every year or so but most of them are only slightly better than cattle sheds with abominable passenger amenities and corrupt and slothful customs and other staff. Political considerations can hold up rapid modernisation of airports and often stand in the way of improving efficiency.

Come winter and the airport in the country’s capital can remain shut for days either because of thick fog or because the crew of some airline has not been trained to use the new landing systems. Every winter there is much hue and cry but things do not seem to have improved much. And what will change last is the gathering of thugs and conmen in various masks, unconcerned about the presence of police and security staff, who pounce upon the unsuspecting passenger upon his or her arrival—to receive a very unpleasant welcome to the country.

- Syndicate Features -

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