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Air safety incidents at Delhi and Goa: Is it 'human' factor or shortage of staff at ATC?

New Delhi: Two air safety incidents on a single day, at Delhi and Goa airports, have led many of us to once again question India's air safety record. Remember, India was downgraded by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the United States in 2014 for failing to have enough safety personnel, and a restoration of the rating took several months. Though it won't be clear till a probe is completed on what lead to incidents this morning at Goa and Delhi, the fact is that manpower shortage in critical air functions could be a factor in frequent air incidents.

Take the critical ATC function - the Air Traffic Control (ATC) is still short staffed. Sources tell us the manpower needed is 3,600 personnel and only about 2,900 have been recruited till now. "These positions are being filled,"said an Airports Authority of India (AAI) official. A short staffed ATC apart, this story from Bloomberg quotes data from India's safety regulator DGCA to say that air safety incidents, which prompted regulatory action, reached 280 this year till August, beating the 275 all of last year. It went on to predict that "At this pace, the number may rise to more than 400 by the end of 2016, making it the worst in three years for aviation safety".

 Air safety incidents at Delhi and Goa: Is it human factor or shortage of staff at ATC?


India is one of the fastest growing aviation markets across the globe and any increase in safety-related incidents is obviously a cause for worry. DGCA officials say there is no cause for worry and incidents sometimes happen due to the "human" factor. They also add that the country is following all internationally mandated safety protocols.

Earlier this month, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her party TMC had created a furore by alleging that an IndiGo flight carrying the CM was not allowed priority landing at Kolkata airport despite the pilots seeking emergency landing due to fuel shortage. This was stoutly denied by the airline, which said there was probably a miscommunication between the flight crew and the ATC about how much fuel the flight was left with. Instead of seeking an explanation from the ATC personnel, aviation regulator DGCA grounded IndiGo pilots in this case.

Meanwhile, early this morning, 9W 2374 Goa-Mumbai Jet Airways' flight "veered off the runway while aligning for takeoff", the airline tweeted. It later said 12 passengers had sustained injuries and still later, it said all but five have been discharged. This incident made Goa's Dabolim airport inoperational for a few hours.

A regulatory source told Firstpost that the Goa incident is being treated as an accident and a team from Air Accident Investigation Bureau (AAIB) will reach Goa by the evening to begin inquiries. This person also said a preliminary idea about what caused the aircraft to turn 180 degrees will be there only by Thursday.

Civil Aviation Minister A Gajapathi Raju tweeted that "thorough time-bound investigation and corrective action shall be ensured. Action will also be taken in case there is violation of procedures". The second incident involved a just-landed IndiGo flight and a ready-to-take-off Spicejet aircraft, with some news reports describing the two aircraft coming "Face to face".

The regulatory source quoted above said as per preliminary findings, the ATC at Delhi allowed the SpiceJet flight to take off from the same taxiway where an IndiGo aircraft had landed minutes earlier. This indicates the possibility of it being an ATC error, though like we said earlier, the final picture will emerge only after the probe by DGCA is completed.

The regulatory source further said it could be a case of human error too. SpiceJet said in a statement that "SpiceJet flight SG 123 operating Delhi-Hyderabad was following ATC instructions at all times at the Delhi airport. While taxiing, the SpiceJet crew observed another aircraft on the same taxiway in the opposite direction. Acting promptly, the SpiceJet crew immediately stopped the aircraft and intimated the ATC. Safety is of utmost and primary concern at SpiceJet. At no stage the safety of passengers, crew and aircraft was compromised. All concerned authorities were immediately informed."

And IndiGO also said in a statement that flight 6E 769 Lucknow-Delhi observed another aircraft in front of it while taxiing. "The Captain took the decision to switch off the engine and reported the incident to ATC. All 176 passengers and crew are safe.....flight was observing ATC instructions all the time at the Delhi airport". According to data provided by MoS Civil Aviation Jayant Sinha in Lok Sabha earlier this month, there were 409 safety violations by the crew of scheduled, non-scheduled and general aviation aircraft in the last three years.

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Updated Date: Dec 27, 2016 16:59:25 IST