Are airlines equipped to deal with the fog situation?

Ashwini Phadnis New Delhi | Updated on December 31, 2019 Published on December 31, 2019

A file picture of foggy conditions at Delhi airport VV Krishnan   -  The Hindu

DGCA says there are enough trained pilots, but pilots say it’s more complicated

With North India being enveloped by a thick fog cover for the first time this year leading to diversions and cancellations of flights, the obvious question that arises is how can this be stopped or at least reduced during the peak winter months.

During fog, the airports experience what are called CAT III B conditions when visibility at an airport range from 50 meters to 174 meters. The conditions are called CAT III A when visibility is between 175 meters and 299 meters. India has around 3,600 pilots including 2,000 Pilots in Command and another 1,600 co-pilots who are trained to operate a flight under CAT III B conditions.

Sources in the Directorate General of Civil Aviation told BusinessLine that the number of CAT III B pilots domestically are “sufficient” for managing operations in India. They, however, declined to give the break-up of how many CAT III trained pilots each airline has in India.

Number of pilots

A pilot with a private airline said while the number of pilots certified for low visibility conditions might be sufficient but “what needs to be seen is whether they are distributed proportionately between all the airlines. This needs to be ensured.”

Also because of rapid expansion, pilots do not have enough time to qualify for CAT III, said another pilot with a private airline.

CAT III A and CAT III B are the most severe weather conditions to fly in and are currently being faced at many airports especially in north India.

For an aircraft to take off visibility must be a minimum of 125 meters or more while for landing the visibility must be 50 meters or more.

A cross-section of pilots that BusinessLine spoke to said that merely looking at the number of CAT III B trained pilots as a way out of the situation is over simplifying the problem.

“For operations under CAT III B conditions the pilot, the co-pilot and the aircraft have to be certified. This is important because even if one of the three in the equation is not there operations cannot take place,” a pilot scheduled to fly from Singapore to Delhi said, adding, “many times it is an operational issue that while the Capitan might be CAT III B compliant, the co-pilot might not and with weather deteriorating fast this becomes a problem.”

‘No simple answers’

Pointing out that there is no simple answer to the question as to why flights are delayed, another pilot with a private airline said it is not only about aircraft landing, it is also about aircraft taking off which can lead to flights coming in being diverted and those taking off getting delayed or cancelled.

“When the visibility in Delhi drops, it goes down to 50 metres or even 0 metres. The minimum required for take-off is 125 metres in all three zones.

“So, if an aircraft cannot depart, there are no parking bays for arriving aircraft. Then, the spacing between landing aircraft is increased during low visibility conditions. So the traffic handling capacity of the airport is reduced during these conditions, which leads to delays,” adds another pilot.

Priority for landing

Given fog conditions, landing aircraft are given priority by Air Traffic Controller at times to avoid diversions. Which again leads to delays for flights taking off.

“Generally speaking, airlines try to ensure pilots operating in these conditions are Low Visibility Take Off qualified for take-off or CAT III B qualified for landing. In case the crew is not, the ATC will put them at the back of the line. So, lack of qualification of a crew in itself will not cause delays. A flight of course will be delayed till visibility improves,” adds another pilot.

However, airlines argue that with the cost of training a pilot to be CAT III B compliant running into crores of rupees it does not really make sense to train all their pilots to fly under such conditions as these poor visibility conditions occur for a maximum 10 days in a year.

Published on December 31, 2019
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