What Ails Indian Aviation System?

PTI | ByNadeem (, New Delhi
May 22, 2003 05:29 PM IST

Every crash leads to a lot of hue and cry, high-pitched blame game, a high-profile probe, search for scapegoats, new recommendations and then a set of govt pledges to stem the rot. But...

"Insisting on perfect safety is for people who don't have the balls to live in the real world," so said Mary Shafer of NASA in 1960s. Indian aviation managers seem to be blissfully in agreement with the famous quote.

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Fully knowing the unforgiving nature of air crashes, every such disaster is attributed to almost a similar set of causes -- usually a curious mix of human, technical or natural factors.

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Every crash leads to a lot of hue and cry, high-pitched blame game, a high-profile probe, search for scapegoats, a set of expert recommendations and then a set of govt pledges and announcements to tone up the air safety system. And soon the dust settles, recommendations go junk and it's life as usual -- like what happened after the July 17, 2002 Alliance Air crash at Patna airport killing 60, or when two foreign aircraft crashed over Charkhi-Dadri in Haryana in 1997.

The state-owned Alliance Air, whose aircraft are dubbed as 'engineers' nighmare', had put a big question mark over safety standards of Indian Airlines after Patna airport crash. Big questions were raised about the condition of Boeing 737s, their maintenance, vintage and usefulness, most of which remain largely unanswered till date. The official word just pointed out the reason: Loss of control due to pilot error.

The Boeing 737 involved in the Patna crash was to be phased out by the end of that year as per government guidelines not to allow any aircraft to operate beyond 20 years.  Internationally, the norm is to not to fly a plane for more than 12 years, say aviation experts. But many experts say that maintenance, rather than age, is the key.

Experts cite eight incidents since 1970 when Boeing aircraft have crashed since being inducted into the Indian aviation fleet.

Aviation authorities, generally immune to criticisms, usually reject the allegations as "uninformed, sensational and highly opinionated".  They even claim that India has one of the lowest rates of air accidents in the world.

Civil Aviation officials point out that insurance payments by Indian Airlines have come down to levels comparable with other international airlines and that it has actually saved up to Rs 1 billion in insurance premiums. 

"An aircraft is not judged by its age alone, but also by the number of flights it takes," said a senior civil aviation official. "Every landing adds to the stress, and thus after a few years, there is a complete check on metal fatigue and stress, and only those cleared as airworthy are allowed to fly," he said.

The experts find the official claims debatable.

Former Union Civil Aviation Minister Madhavrao Scindia had once said the time had come to make it compulsory for airlines to dump an aircraft when they reach a certain age. But the suggestion never cut through the red tape.

However, the private airlines seem to be in good state of health so far as the age is concerned. While Alliance planes are between 17 and 20 years old, private aircraft in India are not more than five years old.

Aviation authorities agree that older planes are not only much costlier to maintain but also low in productivity. But they deny that these are unsafe. However, under public pressure, the authorities are indeed identifying such aircraft for greater monitoring.

The locations and disaster control systems of Indian airports have also been a cause of worry. Illegal constructions, shanties, trees and human population make both landing and take-off hazardous. Patna airport is a case in point but it is not the only one. Hyderabad airport too does not subscribe strictly to the safety code, which states that "the airport should be located far from densely-populated city premises". Patna airport has recorded more than 15 bird-hit cases since 1980.

As per a recent report by Airports Authority of India (AAI), various critical equipment and navigational aids like the up-to-date instrument landing systems are lacking or need proper calibration. And the report applies to all metro airports as well. As about the smaller airports where operations have been on the increase over the last few years, even more needs to be done.

Meanwhile, the AAI is also negotiating with the Defence Ministry for more air corridor space over Delhi - 70 per cent of the capital's aerospace is manned by the Air Force -and the rest is allotted to commercial aviation.

The frequent incidence of 'air misses' or 'near misses' between aircraft keep on reminding the aviation managers about the lurking air-travel dangers.

But in the welter of accusations, there is little doubt Indian aviation needs a push, and a modern one at that.

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