Editorial

Fog disruptions: Air passengers continue to bear the brunt of ineffective regulation

| Updated on January 02, 2020 Published on January 02, 2020

Airlines are not investing adequately in getting their pilots and aircraft ready to tackle poor visibility — and the DGCA is not taking airlines to task over this slip

Severe winter and dense fog conditions in north India have again resulted in the annual spectre of hundreds of flights being delayed, diverted or cancelled. Weather conditions are not controllable, but the flight disruptions can be reduced if the aviation ecosystem — especially airlines and the regulator DGCA — tackles the situation better. The crux of the problem is that airlines are not investing adequately in getting their pilots and aircraft ready to tackle poor visibility brought about by severe weather conditions — and that the DGCA is not taking airlines to task over this slip. CAT III A and CAT III B are the most severe weather conditions to fly in and are currently being faced at many airports in north India. Key airports such as Delhi have developed the necessary infrastructure and are equipped to function in such conditions, but many aircraft and pilots are not. As a recent report in this paper pointed out, airlines argue that with the cost of training a pilot to be CAT III B compliant running into crores of rupees, it does not 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. Equipping aircraft with compliant equipment is also costly. For operations under CAT III B conditions, all three — the pilot, the co-pilot and the aircraft — have to be certified. India has about 3,600 pilots trained to operate a flight under CAT III B conditions. This number does not seem to be sufficient, going by the flight disruptions seen almost every year. It is also not clear whether these trained pilots are distributed in adequate strength among the airlines.

It would be simplistic to lay the entire blame for flight disruptions at the door of airlines. A host of other factors including rapidly deteriorating weather conditions, delays by ATCs, lack of adequate slots and traffic handling capacity at airports also play spoilsport. But the disruptions will likely be far lesser if airlines step up to the plate. It is up to the DGCA to ensure that airlines invest adequately in necessary equipment and pilot training. Unfortunately, there appears to be a fair degree of regulatory capture, with the DGCA often seen handling airlines with kid gloves — whether in the case of aircraft engine troubles, surge fares, or flight disruptions. With the DGCA short-staffed, airline employees are often seconded to it. The regulator is also not immune to pressure from the Aviation Ministry, with bureaucrats heading the organisation for several years now.

The upshot: Industry first seems to be the norm, whereas the regulator should be putting passenger safety and convenience first. India urgently needs an independent regulator with more capacity and teeth. A build-now, fix-later culture cannot be the norm in the world’s third largest aviation market.

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Published on January 02, 2020
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