Germanwings airline crash throws spotlight on Air India's ancient Airbus A320s

Though it's very early in the day to comment on what caused Lufthansa-subsidiary Germanwings' Airbus A320 to crash in the French Alps earlier today with presumably all souls lost, on flight 4U9525 from Barcelona to Dusseldorf, one of the earliest facts picked up by news outlets was that the aircraft was around 24 years old. Airframe facts such as age are now routinely available on aircraft websites, often updated by volunteers.

 Germanwings airline crash throws spotlight on Air Indias ancient Airbus A320s

Reuters

To be crystal clear, the age of an aircraft has almost nothing to do with its ability to fly safely. Indeed, all Germanwings aircraft are maintained by LufthansaTechnik, a Lufthansa arm that is a global leader and among the most respected on the planet when it comes to providing maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) services for aircraft, engines and components and which employs over 25,000 people. But older aircraft do need more maintenance, are fuel guzzlers and there is also the airframe fatigue factor. Indian airlines prefer younger aircraft as they are cheaper to maintain and usually return aircraft back to leasing firms before major and expensive maintenance checks are due. The D check which happens every seven years is the most expensive and Indian airlines like IndiGo have preferred to return aircraft within around six years of use.

While the ill-fated German Airbus A320 was around 24 years old, the immediate questions about its age may also raise similar questions in India, where Air India, India's national airline, flies Airbus A320s that are older; in fact, around 26 years old. Judging by the Airbus A320 production list maintained on Planespotters.net Air India may well be flying the oldest Airbus A320s in the world. The only airline supposedly flying an older one is Jordan Aviation, a small Jordanian carrier. However, the aircraft in question doesn't seem to have flown any flights in recent weeks according to data from aviation tracking websites.

But Air India's ancient Airbus A320s are being actively used. VT-EPB, which according to Indian aviation regulator DGCA's website and aviation websites is around 26 years old, has flown several flights since this morning, while another aircraft VT-EPC, which is as old is on international flying duty today, having flown from Delhi to Kochi and then from Kochi to Sharjah in the UAE and will soon be in the air on its way back to Kochi.

Around 10 days ago, one of these ancient Air India Airbus A320s (VT-EPJ) had a landing gear problem on a flight from Delhi to Vadodra and had to make an emergency landing in Delhi once the crew detected the problem. A Times of India report on the incident stated that these old aircraft faced multiple issues which could impact safety. These include weather radar glitches that could cause problems during turbulence and hydraulic failures.

Air India doesn't exactly have a stellar safety record. Hamburg-based Jacdec (Jet Airliner Crash Data Evaluation Centre), which claims to be a global source for professional and accurate aviation safety information, ranked Air India 57th among 60 ranked airlines in its annual safety rankings in 2014. To make matters worse, in Jacdec's 2015 ratings Air India has dropped a place to No 58 among 60 airlines with only China Airlines of Taiwan and Lion Air of Indonesia ranked worse than Air India.

Air India's maintenance practices too could be questionable in many cases. In recent years, Air India has even resorted to stripping of almost-new aircraft to service older aircraft.

Added to this is India's aviation safety downgrade to Category II by the US aviation regulator FAA in January 2014, which said regulatory oversight by the DGCA was inadequate, citing a lack of trained regulatory officials as well as flight inspectors. And despite India's best efforts, the FAA hasn't changed its rating. Mint has quoted air safety expert Mohan Ranganathan warning that the DGCA has only made superficial changes to reverse the US FAA downgrade and that such changes were not likely to convince the tough US aviation regulator.

Hence, Air India continuing to fly these old Airbus A320s isn't confidence inspiring, given the not-so-happy combination of the oldest active aircraft in a production series with a less than stellar airline safety record, in a country that isn't rated as among the best in aviation safety.

The only silver lining (if any) for the aam aadmi flying Air India is that Indian VVIPs like Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Pranab Mukherjee also fly nearly 25-year old Air India Boeing 747-400s on foreign trips. However, these VVIP aircraft are obviously maintained at extremely high standards and the Indian government is also in the process of replacing them with newer aircraft.

Other Indian airlines that fly Airbus A320s include IndiGo, which has a very young fleet, as does the Wadia group owned GoAir, as well as the new Tata-backed airlines AirAsia India and Air Vistara.

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Updated Date: Mar 25, 2015 07:57:03 IST