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Indian air safety in focus after series of technical faults

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
July 25, 2022

A number of mid-air technical malfunctions have forced pilots to make emergency landings in recent weeks, drawing public attention to the issue of aviation safety.

Aircraft at the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport in Kolkata, India
India is set to be the world's third-largest aviation market by 2024, after China and the USImage: Debajyoti Chakraborty/NurPhoto/picture alliance

India's biggest airline, IndiGo, recently said that it had diverted a plane to Karachi in neighboring Pakistan due to a "technical defect."    

The flight was meant to go from the southern Indian city of Hyderabad to Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

This happened just a day after an Air India Express' flight from Calicut, India to Dubai in UAE was diverted safely to Muscat, Oman after a burning smell came from a vent in the forward galley.

In a separate incident, a live bird was found in the cockpit of another Air India Express' flight while it was flying from Bahrain to India.

Another airline, SpiceJet, said on July 5 that a Boeing 737 aircraft from New Delhi to Dubai made an emergency landing in Karachi due to the malfunctioning of a fuel indicator light.

These and other mid-air technical malfunctions, which have led to a number of unscheduled landings in recent weeks, have drawn public attention to the issue of safety in one of the most rapidly expanding and cutthroat civil aviation markets in the world.

Scrutiny over safety issues

After the SpiceJet incident, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), India's aviation regulator, issued a warning.  

Officials said a review of several incidents involving the carrier's planes since April 1 showed that "aircraft either turned back to the originating station or continued landing to the destination with degraded safety margins."

The regulator recently grounded two Airbus SE A320 aircraft of Go First, the South Asian nation's second-biggest airline, and a Boeing Co. 787 jet of Air India Ltd.,  after they reported incidents.

"We have begun a special two-month long audit for all Indian airlines to understand shortcomings, whether there is a lack of maintenance engineers and if quality assurance systems are being followed," said a DGCA official, who asked not to be named as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

"It is meant to check if airlines are sticking to laid-down standards and safety oversight. There will be no compromise on safety," the official added.

After the recent incidents, India's Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia held one-on-one meetings with the heads of airline companies to review air safety norms.

"Passenger safety is paramount. Even the smallest error hindering safety will be thoroughly investigated and course-corrected," Scindia said on Twitter.

Strong demand for air travel

India has seen a surge in demand for air travel since the lifting of COVID restrictions, in a reversal of the slump in passenger numbers for most of the past two-and-a-half years due to the pandemic. 

In May, for instance, the number of people traveling by domestic flights rose to 12 million, almost six times the figure for the same month last year when the country was battling a COVID wave.

Some experts say airlines are unprepared for this sharp rise in demand, which is putting pressure on the infrastructure.

In a statement earlier this month, the head of DGCA Arun Kumar said that a majority of daily incidents had no adverse "safety implications" and were indicative of "a robust safety management system."

"On average, about 30 incidents take place, which include go around, missed approaches, diversion, medical emergencies, weather issues, bird hits, runway incursion, runway excursion et al," he explained. 

The Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi
To cater to the rising air passenger traffic, the Indian government has been working toward increasing the number of airportsImage: Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto/picture alliance

India needs more air traffic controllers

Officials, however, admit that there is a pressing need for more air traffic controllers.

The Airports Authority of India, which manages much of the civil aviation infrastructure, has said air traffic services need 40% more staff for this year alone to boost its current strength of 3,163 personnel.

"Given the push in the aviation sector and how it is poised to grow, all airlines should be putting strictest safety norms in place. There should be no compromise on this score over profits," Ashok Sharma, a former general manager at Indian Airlines, told DW.

India, with its 1.4 billion people, was the world's fastest-growing air passenger market before the COVID pandemic. It is set to be the world's third-largest aviation market by 2024, after China and the US.

To cater to the rising air passenger traffic, the government has also been working toward increasing the number of airports. As of 2020, India had 153 operational airports, and the figure is expected to increase to up to 200 in the coming years, according to officials at the Civil Aviation Ministry.

Jitender Bhargava, a former executive director of Air India, said that the recent technical malfunction incidents and other safety issues were a "blip" that would pass.

"No airline would ever compromise on safety and operate on an image that it is unsafe. It would be disastrous for their functioning," Bhargava said.

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11