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Preventing pitfalls

India’s aviation regulator and industry heads must work in tandem to bridge the gap between the pandemic-triggered manpower shortage and post-pandemic surge in air travel demand in order to minimise the growing frequency of technical snags

Preventing pitfalls
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The recent cancellation of half of SpiceJet's flight schedule is an unprecedented decision ever taken by India's aviation regulator DGCA. The action by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) came in the wake of several SpiceJet aircraft reporting technical malfunction. Though there were some incidents also involving the planes of IndiGo, GoFirst and Vistara, the number of incidents of SpiceJet were more and their nature serious. Consequently, many of its flights were cancelled or delayed and some of the aircraft made emergency landings and were grounded for repairs and maintenance. Major reasons were deficiencies in engineering and technical aspects. The DGCA subjected SpiceJet to "enhanced surveillance" after the no-frills carrier's planes got involved in at least eight incidents of technical malfunction between June 19 and July 5, including two flying over foreign skies. "In view of the findings of various spot checks, inspections and the reply to the show cause notice submitted by SpiceJet, for the continued sustenance of safe and reliable transport service, the number of departures of SpiceJet is hereby restricted to 50 per cent of the number of departures approved under summer schedule 2022 for a period of eight weeks," the DGCA ordered. This meant that the airline would be able to operate not more than 2,096 weekly flights for the next eight weeks, instead of 4,192 domestic flights the DGCA had approved in March as part of the summer schedule (April-October). While issuing a show cause notice to SpiceJet, the regulator said the airline would have to demonstrate that it has "sufficient technical support and financial resources to safely and efficiently undertake such enhanced capacity" if it wanted to operate more than 50 per cent of its flights during the ongoing summer schedule. This was an unprecedented order ever given by the aviation regulator to any Indian airline in the recent past. As per the DGCA's financial audit carried out in September last year, SpiceJet was operating on "cash and carry mode", meaning making down payments anytime it bought anything like fuel. The airline's suppliers and vendors were also not being paid on a regular basis, leading to a shortage of spare parts. There was "poor internal safety oversight" and "inadequate maintenance actions" in the airline which has resulted in degradation of "safety margins", the DGCA had found, a fact that reflected the dire financial state of the no-frills airline. SpiceJet responded to the DGCA notice, claiming it was taking measures for arresting the trend of such incidents. It said the order would not affect its schedule, no flight would be cancelled "due to the current lean travel season" and the DGCA action would have "absolutely no impact on our flight operations." While the airline had retrenched a large number of its staffers, especially in engineering and ground handling during the covid lockdown, it has been making losses for the past three years. It made a net loss of Rs 316 crore, Rs 934 crore and Rs 998 crore in 2018-19, 2019-20 and 2020-21 respectively.

Globally as well as in India, flights had been downed for almost two years due to the pandemic. As per rough estimates, about 20,000 aircraft — large and small — remained grounded across the world during most of the two years affected by the pandemic. There were major job losses in the aviation industry. In India, approximately 10 per cent of the jobs in the aviation sector were lost between April 2020 and December 2021, Minister of State for Civil Aviation VK Singh informed the Parliament. "The total job loss in airlines, airports, ground handling and air cargo sector is around 19,200," he said in reply to a question in Rajya Sabha on March 28. During the covid period itself, while the total number of employees working with airlines, airports and ground handling agencies declined between April 2020 and December 2021, the number of people working in air cargo companies increased marginally during the same period — from around 9,600 as on March 31, 2020, to around 10,500 as on December 31, 2021. The total number of employees working with airlines in India fell from 74,800 as on March 31, 2020, to 65,700 as on December 31, 2021, he noted. Between March 31, 2020, and December 31, 2021, the number of employees working with Indian airport operators dropped from 73,400 to 65,700. The employee strength in the ground handling agencies declined from 30,800 in April 2020 to 27,600 in December 2021. In reply to questions in the Lok Sabha, the Minister said the pandemic had dealt a huge blow to the Indian aviation sector for the last two years, as it recorded a massive loss of more than Rs 25,000 crore and job losses of more than 20,000 people in this sector alone. About 7,900 people working with various domestic airlines have lost their jobs between March 2020 and November last year, while 13,300 employees working as ground handling staff at different airports have also been rendered jobless due to the pandemic. Several airline companies had also undertaken salary cuts of their employees to stay afloat when they were forced to halt operations. The airlines sector had incurred an estimated loss of Rs 19,564 crore, while airports suffered an estimated loss of Rs 5,116 crore during the financial year 2020-21. The scheduled domestic operations were shut from March 23, 2020 which were subsequently opened in a calibrated manner. Initially, the airline operators were only allowed to operate 33 per cent of their capacity with a capping of fare for all the airlines. It was only from October this year that the government allowed full operations of scheduled domestic flights. International scheduled flights also remained suspended during this period till they resumed in early March this year. Since commercial passenger aircraft were banned or restricted from flying during the pandemic, the cargo business of the airlines went up, leading to a marginal increase in the workforce in this sector. The airlines continued to earn survival revenue through their cargo services.

The DGCA attributed the rise in the frequency of technical problems faced by the airlines to Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown/restrictions that impacted airline operations. "There is a universal problem of manpower shortage after Covid-19, not just with one airline or one country," DGCA chief Arun Kumar said in a media interview. In the last year, over 460 incidents of technical glitches had been reported, forcing the DGCA to enhance surveillance. It carried out a special audit of commercial airlines, as part of which it studied the availability of manpower, facilities and equipment, in addition to aircraft grounded on account of a non-availability of spares. These audits were carried out on facilities like hangars and stores, equipment being used by airline personnel, airlines' quality assurance system, aircraft grounded due to lack of spare parts and airlines' maintenance control centre, among other things. A report quoted the DGCA chief as saying that the flight crew should always remain vigilant. As far as crews are concerned, "you need to be alert, vigilant and respond to situations as they unfold, and if you follow the standard operating procedures, you can navigate them without compromising safety." He said "if on the ground you attend to symptoms of the snag before proceeding further, and if you do the checklist actions appropriately", then the risk of technical glitches comes down. He said the DGCA audit found that the airline companies were improperly identifying the causes of reported aircraft defects and were not placing qualified engineers at all airports. Overall, "the reasons for the increasing number of technical snags appear to be Covid-related, which impacted airline operations due to lockdown and curtailed operations etc. ... Also, there is a universal problem of manpower shortage after Covid, not just with one airline or one country," the DGCA chief said.

It is said in the civil aviation sector that flying is the safest form of long-distance transport the world has ever known, and safety cannot be compromised at any cost. However, India has recently witnessed several such incidents where safety has been compromised by airlines that had cut costs due to the pandemic closure. World airlines' body — International Air Transport Association (IATA) — released its 2021 safety performance data for the commercial airline industry in March this year, which showed strong improvement in several areas compared to both 2020 and to the five-year period of 2017-2021. The world over, the airlines experienced zero fatal accidents last year. The highlights included reductions in the total number of accidents, the all-accident rate and fatalities, and there were no runway or taxiway excursion accidents, for the first time in at least 15 years. This is a big achievement globally. In 2018, some 4.3 billion passengers flew safely on over 46 million flights across the world. The fatal accident rate was 0.28 per million flights, the equivalent of one fatal accident for every 4.2 million flights. The IATA statistics show that on an average, a person would need to take a flight every day for 10,078 years to be involved in an accident with at least one fatality. Yet still there are accidents and hence there is always room for improvement. Each fatality is a tragedy. So, it is paramount that the common goal of the aviation industry should be to have every flight take off and land safely.

In a recent statement, IATA's Global Director for Safety, Mark Searle said "as air traffic resumes its growth after a hiatus, it's more important than ever that we identify new opportunities to mitigate the risks of an aircraft accident." The pandemic provided an opportunity to collate specific issues in a constantly changing operating environment, including overall risk assessment, how the staff — from the crew to ground handlers — should be re-trained after this long break, thorough check and repair of airframes, engines and their spares which are brought out of the storage, pilot audits for risk-based approach, re-certification of those staffers who require certification and bringing in new work practices. Overall, the airline owners and the management should foster safety awareness among themselves and the employees, integrate safety into business strategies, processes and performance measures, create the internal capacity to proactively manage safety and build an environment where all employees feel responsibility for safety.

In recent days, the DGCA has taken steps to enhance safety in the civil aviation sector and has said it would continue these measures, like spot checks and audits, against the backdrop of increased technical snags being reported by different airlines in the country. While the country's aviation regulator plays its role to oversee safety measures and take punitive steps, it is imperative that the airline companies must themselves build safety culture in their companies and work out a safety strategy, as suggested by the IATA. New challenges would arise as air travel grows in leaps and bounds. It is not only about getting an aircraft ready to fly but also bringing back pilots, air traffic controllers, ground crew, cabin crew and countless others to work. And all of them must be fully compliant with safety standards from day one. Will the Indian aviation industry do it?

Views expressed are personal

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