With the lifting of pandemic restrictions, travellers are taking to the skies in large numbers and airlines are trying to cash in by quickly scaling up operations. But lately, this has been accompanied by a discernible spike in the number of domestic flights being diverted or aborted due to safety-related issues. Media-reported instances this year included one case of severe turbulence that left over a dozen passengers of a Spicejet flight injured with two in the ICU, an averted mid-air collision between two IndiGo aircraft and flights being diverted due to an aircraft’s fuel indicator malfunctioning and another’s windshield developing cracks mid-air. But rather than acknowledging the existence of the problem, the Ministry of Civil Aviation and the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) seem to be engaged in playing down safety concerns and telling air passengers that such incidents are par for the course.
In a Lok Sabha reply last week, the Civil Aviation Minister shared data showing that airlines operating in India have faced 192 safety issues in the last 10 years of which 19 were ‘accidents’, 99 were ‘serious incidents’ and 74 were just incidents (with 10 incidents reported in 2022). Accidents, by the official rulebook, are those instances where passengers are seriously injured or the aircraft suffers structural damage, while ‘serious incidents’ refer to cases where an accident could very well have transpired but didn’t. Air travellers therefore cannot take much comfort from this hair-splitting on definitions. The DGCA, which is specifically tasked with auditing airline safety protocols and penalising violations, seems to be curiously reluctant to either crack the whip on errant operators or to share full information on what its audits have revealed. Recently, after issuing a show-cause notice to SpiceJet for its ‘failure to establish safe, efficient and reliable services’, it directed the airline to operate at 50 per cent capacity for the next eight weeks. No explanation has been forthcoming on the exact nature of violations or how safety protocols will be ensured for the 50 per cent capacity that is operational. In light of this, it is puzzling that DGCA should attempt to talk down the incidents by asserting in media interviews that there’s a lot of ‘unnecessary hype and hoopla’ around snags and that a rising number of incidents is actually a sign of the industry following a ‘robust safety management system’.
Both structural and short-term factors impacting domestic aviation seem to be contributing to this patchy safety record. With regulatory caps on airfares imposed during Covid still in place and ATF prices escalating, airlines are facing strained cash flows and perhaps choosing to cut corners on aircraft turnaround times, timely replacement of components and even adequately compensating maintenance technicians. The effective lack of competition in the Indian skies, with IndiGo amassing a 57 per cent market share, has led to a situation where passengers don’t have room to vote with their feet. Aviation experts have also been pointing out for a long time now, that in conducting safety audits and investigations, the DGCA is hamstrung by the lack of regulatory capacity and an adequate number of technically skilled and qualified engineers/pilots on its rolls, owing to uncompetitive pay-scales. The Centre can certainly fix the first two problems quickly by doing away with airfare caps and licensing more new players. Beefing up the DGCA’s capacity through lateral hiring should be a medium-term goal.