New Delhi: Nalini Khandelwal hasn’t had the nerve to board a plane since 1 July 2007.
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That day the 50-year-old stockbroker was travelling from New Delhi to hometown Indore by a Jet Airways (India) Ltd flight on a clear afternoon. She says things started going wrong when the turboprop ATR-72 came in to land at the Devi Ahilyabai Holkar Airport.
“I think the pilot overshot the runway,” Khandelwal recalls. “He decided to do a belly landing, we bounced, lost the wheels as they were broken. The wheels hit the airport wall and the impact was so strong the wall broke.”
The plane bounced three times and came to a halt in a ditch filled with rainwater. Inside were 49 badly bruised and shaken passengers, lucky to be alive. Khandelwal escaped with an injured back and a broken wrist.
Statistics show there has been no fatal accident involving a commercial airliner in India since 17 July 2000, when an Alliance Air Boeing 737 approaching Patna airport crashed in a residential neighbourhood, killing 58 people in an accident the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) blamed on crew not following “the correct approach procedure”.
But in the almost 10 years since then, there have been several close shaves in an aviation market that’s boomed in that time. The regulator ascribed some of the escapes to sheer good fortune.
Air pocket: A Kingfisher aircraft that skidded off the runway in Mumbai in November. The fleet strength of scheduled domestic airlines has more than doubled to 400 from 160 in 2005 as has the number of aircraft-related incidents, rising from 806 to 1,132, according to the air safety regulator.
“The DGCA said it was miraculous that passengers survived,” says Khandelwal. “We should have been a ball of fire.”
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She has been fighting in consumer courts for “respectful compensation” after declining the eight free tickets per passenger offered by Jet Airways, India’s largest carrier by passengers flown, which also apologized for the “inconvenience caused”.
Jet Airways did not comment on the Indore mishap. In an email, a Jet Airways spokesperson said: “Aviation being a high reliability system demands stringent processes and procedures are in place to achieve the expected level of safety.”
DGCA categorized the mishap in Indore as an “incident” and not as an “accident” because, by the regulator’s definition, an accident necessarily involves deaths.
“If you have an aircraft which is nearly broken, would you call it an accident or an incident?” asks Ranjana Kaul, a Delhi-based lawyer fighting Khandelwal’s case.
Every day, some 3,500 civilian flights criss-cross the Indian skies, a number that has nearly doubled from 1,900 just five years ago, according to DGCA, as a growing economy, rising incomes and low air fares prompt more people to fly.
India’s aviation market has doubled in four years from 22.30 million passengers in 2005 to 44 million in 2009. The fleet strength of scheduled domestic airlines has more than doubled to 400 from 160 in 2005.
At the time of the Alliance Air crash, only four domestic passenger carriers were operating in the country—state-run Indian Airlines and Air India (which have since merged), Air Sahara (now JetLite) and Jet Airways. Alliance Air was a subsidiary of Indian Airlines and has also been absorbed in Air India.
Since 2004, they have been joined by Kingfisher Airlines Ltd, InterGlobe Aviation Pvt. Ltd-run IndiGo, SpiceJet Ltd, GoAir (India) Pvt. Ltd and Paramount Airways Pvt. Ltd.
The number of aircraft-related incidents has kept pace, rising from 806 in 2005-06 to 1,132 in 2008-09, according to DGCA.
The number of “near miss” incidents rose to 20 from 14 in the same period, according to available DGCA data for 2005-06 and a DGCA official who didn’t want to be named. A near miss occurs when two aircraft come close to each other in an unplanned way, without causing injury or damage, but with the potential to do so.
One near miss took place in February last year when a helicopter from the fleet that carries President Pratibha Patil landed metres away from an Air India aircraft that was taking off from Mumbai airport.
Only the presence of mind of the Air India pilot, who applied the brakes after having been cleared for takeoff, averted a potential disaster
Emails sent to an Air India spokesperson for comment were unanswered.
“Near misses really need to be looked into as some of them could have become accidents,” says a retired DGCA joint director who didn’t want to be named as he still works as an aviation consultant.
DGCA information accessed by Mint suggests there were four serious accidents and five serious incidents in 2009, besides around 1,000 incidents.
Airports under stress
“Near misses have been high because the safety apparatus is not geared up for (the growing volume of) traffic,” says Sanat Kaul, a former joint secretary in the ministry of civil aviation who also represented India at the International Civil Aviation Organization, the United Nations-affiliated global body for aviation safety.
Increasing air traffic has put tremendous pressure on airports as well as DGCA, which is responsible for ensuring safety. The Mumbai airport, which handled 654 flights a day in 2009 compared with an average 419 in 2004, is a case in point.
“Mumbai has no solution right now other than a new airport,” says Kaul, referring to the plan to create a second airport in Navi Mumbai. The plan has been cleared by the Union government, but the project work hasn’t begun yet because of delays in securing environmental clearances.
Mumbai International Airport Pvt. Ltd, which operates the Mumbai airport, denies it runs a “high risk” facility.
“We are one of the safest airports in the country as borne out by statistics,” spokesman Manish Kalghatgi said in an email. “The international safety benchmark outlined by Airports Council International (ACI) is 0.021 incident per 10,000 aircraft movements. The Mumbai airport is currently (at) 0.015.”
Kalghatgi added that the airport was implementing a master plan to increase its capacity.
In 2009, Delhi overtook Mumbai as the country’s busiest airport, handling 666 flights a day. It has had its share of near misses. In May 2008, a SpiceJet flight from Bangalore was approaching the runway in stormy weather and poor visibility when a European airliner entered the runway without clearance.
A year earlier, an Indian Air Force Boeing 737 aircraft carrying Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi came dangerously close to a Virgin Atlantic wide-body A-340 aircraft that had arrived from London.
“Near misses mean rules are not being followed by either the ATC (air traffic control) or flight operator or airport operator,” says the retired DGCA joint director quoted earlier.
DGCA needs to make the safety system transparent, speed up its investigations and carry out more safety audits, says Chennai-based air safety expert Mohan Ranganathan.
Safety audits typically cover everything from an inspection of the qualifications of technical personnel to the airworthiness of planes.
“They have done just 14 audits in three years,” says Ranganathan, who has 20,000 hours of flying experience, citing information released by DGCA in response to his application under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
The DGCA reply of 3 December said in 2007 it audited Paramount Airways, Alliance Air, Air India Charters Ltd and IndiGo. JetLite was audited the next year, and in 2009, safety audits were carried out on Jet Airways, Paramount and SpiceJet.
For its part, DGCA, which employs 306 people compared with Air India’s 32,438, simply does not have the staff required for the job. Its air safety team has only 82 personnel to supervise around 800 aircraft in the skies. Most of them are limited to accident investigation and just a handful are allotted to accident prevention.
Even so, the regulator is trying, initiating training programmes for its staff and augmenting its workforce, says a top DGCA official, on condition of anonymity.
A top flight safety official at an Indian carrier says airlines themselves tend to cover up safety-related “occurrences” instead of reporting them, as they are required to.
When occurrences go unreported, and consequently uninvestigated, they can lead to incidents, said the official, who has dealt with air safety issues for 30 years. When even these are covered up by airlines, chances are that sooner or later, there will be an accident.
The official requested anonymity as he is not authorized to speak to the media.
Pilots with insufficient experience add to the chances of a mishap. Pilot training programmes have suffered because of intense competition following liberalization of the aviation market and its mushroom growth.
“Then came youngsters with 250 hours’ experience those days and a CPL (commercial pilot’s licence). It was like fast food. Today, from 250 hours, the licence requirement has come down to 200 hours,” says the airline safety official quoted above.
The official says many new pilots, who had “never seen anything beyond a little bit of Cessna (a small aircraft)”, are suddenly put in a high-tech hot seat with scores of lives in their hands, at a time when cockpit operations have become more dependent on pilots.
In the 1960s, he says, the Boeing 707 cockpit work was shared by the pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer and navigator. Today, with most systems becoming automated, the work is done by just the pilot and co-pilot.
The pilots for their part have a list of grievances. They talk of the unmitigated stress they are under as they cope with delays in securing landing clearance at congested airports and pressure from their employers to maintain on-time performance, and confess that they fear this increases their chances of making a mistake.
A senior pilot with a low-cost airline says some of the near misses happen because of cross-runway operations at airports such as Mumbai that “require more oversight and control than parallel or single runway operations”.
“If you combine this with constant delays which put us under pressure, the congestion on ATC radio channels and inefficient controllers, incidents are bound to happen,” he says.
While all this may explain the context in which Khandelwal’s plane nearly met with catastrophe, it’s not going to make her take to the skies anytimesoon.
Graphics by Paras Jain/Mint