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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Pak Crash Puts Spotlight on Indian Skies

In the wake of Friday's plane crash in Pakistan, aviation experts feel Indian skies may not be safe either as airlines sometimes cut corners on flight safety due to cash crunch

 While the Pakistani civil aviation authorities are still to ascertain what caused the ill-fated 737 flight 213 to crash on its maiden flight killing all 121 passengers on board on Friday last week, aviation experts back home say Indian skies might just be not as safe because cash-crunched airlines sometimes find themselves in a compelling situation to postpone the normal checks on their aircraft and also might not want to spend enough on training the pilots. 
Bhoja Air tragedy is second of Pakistan's worst aviation disasters in recent times after the Air Blue crash of 2010, coincidentally the same airport and same inclement weather conditions in which all passengers died after the aircraft crashed into surrounding hills. 
Whenever an aircraft crash happens, it leaves several unanswered questions on what was the reason for the loss of lives and also what really happened to the machine that is otherwise considered safest (compared to all other transport modes) in transport history to lose wings and crash land. Technical fault, human error of judgment or extreme weather is usually the three top reasons that have made it to the investigation books as prime cause of aircraft crashes. 
But of late, there is a disturbing trend which is becoming a reason for some of the major aircraft crashes, and that is airlines cutting corners on flight safety due to cash crunch, or the pilots not being trained fully to react to sudden-and-snapa-minute reflex situation that present themselves in a cockpit without warning. "What should we do?" the last words of French pilots who were trying to recover a stalled Air France A330 clearly indicate pilots were not trained enough. 
Both Air France and European aircraft manufacturer Airbus are charged with manslaughter, a thing that never even came up during one of the worst aviation disasters back home that of Air India Express in May 2010 that killed 158 passengers due to the human error of an overworked pilot. The low-cost arm of Air India, AI Express, has serious safety issues which pertain to not only training but also lack of equipment in the aircraft needed for logging flying hours and navigational aids but also issues on pilot training as well. 
"Air India Express has some serious safety concerns," a senior official in the office of the Indian civil aviation regulator said. But the regulator has not done enough to follow up on its own findings after it rapped all domestic airlines of flouting safety norms after identifying the problems with each of the carriers. With $20 billion of debt and almost $3 billion of combined projected losses for the financial year FY12, Indian carriers are bound to face issues that might toss up their safety records. 
The two big airlines Air India and Kingfisher (now reduced to 20 aircraft fleet and lowest market share) have both not paid their pilots and engineers salaries for months altogether. But yet their aircraft fly in the air without any serious questions by the regulator. 
Kingfisher engineers went on a flash strike on non-payment of dues on Saturday last week but the aircraft of the airline still flew and neither the regulator nor Kingfisher's promoter Vijay Mallya paid much heed when the airline pilots said making them fly without salaries is a safety issue. 
Kingfisher pilots, who were unpaid for over three months until March had written to DGCA chief EK Bharat Bhushan emphasising the same point. Aviation experts say making unpaid pilots fly can be a serious flight safety issue. 
A case in point is the famous crash of a European carrier where discontented and unpaid pilots, who were made to wait at the airport for three hours before a take-off as their airline was not able to pay fuel charges, did eventually crash the airliner due to fatigue and stress on account of non-payment of salaries. But when an Air India pilot wrote this to the regulator, he was reprimanded and suspended for indiscipline in 2011. 
The director general of civil aviation undertook a safety audit between November 2011 and January 2012, to ensure that India's financially stressed airlines do not cut corners on safety, experts have questioned the exercise saying when will action be taken on the audit findings? "DGCA has taken no action on its own audit. What does it mean? Wasn't the audit correct? Furthermore, apart from the leaks that media got, the regulator has not sent out any official notices or public reports to back up its audit. So what was the audit all about after all?" asks Captain Mohan Ranganathan, an aviation safety expert. The DGCA report had made rather harsh recommendations after carrying out a safety audit on the six scheduled domestic carriers. "A reasonable case exists for withdrawal of their (Kingfisher's) airline operator permit (licence) as their financial stress is likely to impinge on safety," the draft report had said. Similarly, the report had found various safety violations on the part of Air India Express. "A prima facie case exists for restricting their operations in view of safety issues," it had said. The country's most profitable budget carrier IndiGo was also pulled up in the report, which observed," Fast growth induction plan of the fleet in the organisation also needs to be reviewed in view of the serious findings recorded in audit reports." But industry experts say Air India engineers maintain the highest safety standards and it is difficult to get a sign-off from them on any waiver. But at the same time they say Kingfisher cannibalising its aircraft, as it cannot pay for maintenance, is indeed a safety risk. "If the parts that are cannibalised are within a certified lifespan then it is fine, but if those parts are also out of the lifespan it can be a safety issue," said an industry expert not wanting to be identified. But industry experts also say an aircraft maintenance repair and overhauling is a well-oiled mechanism that is controlled by the maintenance, repair and overhauling vendor and also the aircraft manufacturer. "It does not matter if the airline owner wants to undertake checks and repairs. It is difficult to get out of a maintenance facility without proper checks as the MRO vendor might not give a sign off," said an industry expert. However, for airlines that do their own repair and maintenance, it is possible to cut corners. But in Bhoja Air's case, ageing aircraft might have played a part as the benchmark of safe flight for an aircraft is 20 years and industry experts describe Bhoja's 30-year-old aircraft's flight as making a 90-year-old man do a run. Airlines in India have an average fleet age of 4.5-5.5 years, barring Air India that has some really old equipment in its hangars. "Age of aircraft doesn't have as much to do with safety as people usually think," said the chief of flight safety from a private domestic carrier. "If you maintain your machines periodically and see to it that they go under proper checks and repairs, they can fly for several years. Even young aircraft could be accident-prone if not maintained adequately," the executive, who has 49 years of experience in aviation, said. 
A C-check of an aircraft, which is supposed to be performed every 15-21 months and requires a couple of weeks to complete may cost over $2,000 for a 6-7 year old Airbus 320 aircraft. Aircraft spares cost somewhere between $200,000-300,000. Because maintenance is such a costly affair, experts say the expanding Indian airline industry, which is also loss- and debt-ridden, poses some safety concerns. 
Apart from these, Captain Ranganathan points out that there are a few runways like the one in Patna and Jammu, which are not fit for jumbo operations due to inadequate runway length, but it has been overlooked by both airlines and the regulator. Apart from an aircraft-pilot mismatch, Indian pilots also lack inadequate training in weather flying, Ranganathan said. When asked, DGCA's Bharat Bhushan said adequate action was being taken on the safety audit report findings and it has taken measures in the form of cleansing the industry of fake pilots and unfit flying schools. "We are constantly working on the safety of Indian skies, but not even the US regulator can check individually for each of the 12,000 flights undertaken in that country."


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