IndiGo's technical snags: A clueless aviation watchdog, DGCA must seek aircraft-specific glitch data from carriers

Lack of credible data is a problem plaguing much of the Indian economy and the aviation sector is no different. Every month, aviation regulator DGCA puts out a comprehensive data sheet portraying domestic airlines’ on-time performance (OTP) across a handful of large airports that account for a bulk of the domestic traffic; the number of passenger complaints; the load factor of each airline (number of occupied seats versus number of seats) and the total number of domestic passengers who took a flight that month.

Most of these data points are provided by the airlines themselves as the regulator just does not have the manpower and skills needed for data collection and monitoring. This self-reporting leads to errors sometimes and misreporting at other times.

Representational image. Reuters.

Representational image. Reuters.

Now, as the Indian skies are getting crowded and on-time performance of almost every airline getting affected, there has been much grief over the self-reporting by each airline especially on the OTP figures. After all, OTP translates into passenger market share as airlines promote their timely departures. So when some airlines got together to complain against the “low” number of snags reported by market leader IndiGo in 2017, the regulator raised the matter again with IndiGo.

This piece says IndiGo revised the snag figures this month to 14,628 in 2017, up from just 340 it had filed previously. “The airline said this was because the regulator had asked it to be stricter in reporting glitches”, the piece says, adding the increase of more than 40 times in snag figures came after rivals raised questions.

The Director General of Civil Aviation, B S Bhullar, confirmed to Firstpost that the regulator had indeed sought revised figures from IndiGo after some other domestic airlines wrote to it, complaining of the discrepancy. He further explained that there are two formats under which snags are reported: one requires each airline to disclose how many flight departures were delayed by more than a 15 minutes while the second format requires airlines to report all recordings/notings by the pilots for snags which lead to delays.

So IndiGo filed the list of snags by only declaring how many times a departure was delayed by more than 15 minutes, thus coming up with a much lower number of snags than some other rival airlines. When it added the snags as reported by pilots, the total number jumped.

Bhullar said earlier, the DGCA had not specified which of the two reporting formats should be followed, resulting in confusion. Obviously, the number of snags reported under the first format would be lower compared to the second format. He said the issue has now been resolved “and airlines have been asked to give data under both heads”.

Meanwhile, aviation expert and former VP (operations) at IndiGo, Shakti Lumba, said "The DGCA needs to do a statistical analysis of the number of non-critical defects and critical defects affecting the air worthiness of an aircraft which are not covered by the minimum equipment list (MEL). This data should be based on the number of aircraft and flights by each operator. Only then will a fair comparison (on snags and OTP) happen. Presently we are comparing apples with oranges".

Anything not working on plane can be called a snag but snags have various categories and in general, it is difficult for an aircraft engineer cannot check every inch of a plane, every day. So pilots bring certain defects to the attention of engineers for rectification and this is what has changed the number of snags reported by IndiGo.  Lumba explained that snag reporting and rectification process follows a procedure. Some snags can be allowed to continue unrectified for 72 hours – which means the aircraft remains air worthy despite the snags for this length of time. Some can be allowed for 36 hours, some for 24 hours while some others can only wait till the completion of the flight.

So, many snags get carried forward and all this is laid down in the Minimum Equipment List (MEL) of an aircraft. Snag reporting therefore does not automatically mean that an airline is fudging data on the air worthiness of an aircraft or that higher number of snags is equal to any compromise on passenger safety. There are some snags which are not covered in the MEL and have to be rectified before a flight can be operated.

There are still issues with how the DGCA wants snags and delays reported. It wants airlines to report if a flight gets delayed for more than 15 minutes owing to technical reasons, the exact reason why the flight is delayed, among other things. But if delays are due to adverse weather, airport security issues, pilots arriving late – these do not get reflected in the snags/OTP reports. Also, the OTP data is only meant for the large metro airports across the country, with no data submitted by airline for non-metro airports or those operating at smaller cities. So in effect, the OTP and other data may not always be a fair reflection of an airline’s performance on an all-India basis.

On snags at least, aviation experts say instead of asking for the number of snags, the regulator should seek data on the percentage of snags per aircraft per cycle (which is one takeoff and landing). They also suggest that since the DGCA lacks the capability for data collection from all over India, it should at least do a statistical analysis of snags to classify them as either critical or non-critical. Critical issues that affect aircraft unworthiness should then be examined further.


Updated Date: Jul 24, 2018 16:17 PM

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