Air Safety Paramount — No Compromise

There are clear indications that there is apparent negligence and maintenance crew is not adhering to safety rules and regulations.

Issue: 07-2022By Air Vice Marshal Sanjay Bhatnagar (Retd)Photo(s): By Boeing

It has been a turbulent summer for Indian scheduled airlines, especially the low cost carriers, as they have recorded a marked increase in mid-air incidents, attracting considerable media attention. Social media is flooded with reactions of various concerned passengers.

Indian low cost carrier SpiceJet has had the maximum number of these incidents. Starting from May 1, 2022 wherein its Boeing 737MAX from Mumbai to Durgapur encountered severe turbulence, resulting in atleast two passengers getting admitted to ICU and 12 getting hospitalised. Since then, there have been a series of mid-air incidents relating to oil filter warning, crack in the windshield, cabin pressure failing to built, bird hit with engine catching fire, Fuselage door warning on take-off roll, Smoke in cabin among others.

Spotlight fell on SpiceJet when three incidents happened on a single day – July 5. In that, windshield cracks were observed on a Q400, the Delhi-Dubai flight had to make an emergency landing in Karachi due to fuel indicator light malfunctioning and a B737-700F freighter to Chongqing returning to Kolkata due weather radar malfunction. This was followed, on July 11, by Boeing 737MAX reporting problem with nose wheel strut at Dubai. Further, on July 14, IndiGo’s flight had to be diverted to Jaipur due engine vibrations. On July 16, Air India Express flight had to be diverted to Muscat due to burning smell in the cabin. On July 17, once again Indigo’s Sharjah-Hyderabad flight had to be diverted to Karachi due to an engine problem. Most incidents are related to technical snags, maintenance related occurrences and faulty engineering practices, spread across different types of aircraft.

This marked rise in incidents has raised questions about India’s oversight on the civil aviation industry. Deeply concerned by this, on July 5, the national regulator, Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) issued a show cause notice to SpiceJet, highlighting the poor internal safety oversight and inadequate maintenance actions leading to degradation of safety margins.

Continued technical incidents have further prompted the DGCA to undertake more spot checks. DGCA has observed shortage of competent certifying staff at transit stations and bases, hence, DGCA has directed that staff holding AME Category B1/B2 license, with appropriate authorisation, to be compulsorily made available. DGCA has also observed an increasing trend of financially strained airlines continuing to fly the aircraft on MEL for longer duration. MEL stands for minimum equipment list, under this the airline can clear the aircraft to fly with partially serviceable non-critical equipment, however, within a certain time frame. It should actually be an exception and should never become a practice.

On July 18, DGCA issued stern instructions to the airlines to decisively tackle all these issues by July 28. These include:

  • Improper identification of cause of a reported defect.
  • Increasing trend of MEL releases.
  • Non-availability of required certifying staff to cater to multiple scheduled arrivals/departures in a short interval.

Indian civil aviation so far has a good safety record but the last few months’ situation is worrisome. There is an urgent need to introspect our maintenance practices. There are clear indications that there is apparent negligence and maintenance crew is not adhering to safety rules and regulations. We have so far been lucky that we have not yet had a major accident leading to a major loss of life or aircraft.

Time to act is now. There is a turmoil or whole lot of changes in the Indian civil aviation sector, this needs to be recognised by the DGCA, MoCA and airlines. It is said in the aviation circles that whenever there are changes in the environment, there is requirement to be extra vigilant. The sector is growing, new airlines like Akasa Air is planned to commence operations possibly by month-end and Jet Airways is getting revived too, so there is bound to be competition for resources. Shortages of pilots in the Indian aviation sector is well known, shortage of maintenance crew is close to 10-15 per cent. There is a requirement to address the issues of shortages. Training is still very costly and time consuming. Also, in the near future, as there is going to be an increased induction of newer aircraft, these demand better maintenance and training standards. Also, operations from smaller and newer airports are likely to be increasing due to impetus gained by RCS-UDAN scheme. At the same time onset of monsoon is likely to bring along its own set of challenges for operators and maintenance crew.

Air safety just cannot be compromised. Hence, the need to address these challenges is urgent. Requirement at this juncture is to raise passenger confidence. There is a requirement to have a more vigilant approach by DGCA. Also, it needs to take strong action against defaulters, institute a strong deterrent penalty to curb any tendency on the part of airlines to resort to short cuts. Imposing a fine of miserly 10 lakhs for violation of training and continuity norms by an airline does not convey the right message on the part of the regulator. There is a requirement for the DGCA and Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) to be more prudent in approach and not take any knee jerk reactions.