On August 22 last year, an air traffic controller saw Indigo flight IGO258 and Air India’s AIC995 approaching the same altitude over New Delhi. Flight AIC995 was asked to turn left to avoid a collision, but that put the plane on the path of another Indigo aircraft, IGO528.
It was a close shave, and in the end the three flights landed safely after the AI plane again made changes to its altitude, a source at the civil aviation ministry told HT.
The incident was among 32 cases of ‘near miss’ in 2016, highest for any year in the history of the country’s civil aviation, according to government data obtained by HT through the Right to Information law. The year beat the previous maximum seen in 2013 by 40%.
Experts say that recent initiatives to boost the aviation sector will only weaken air safety standards, beset at present by a shortage of manpower, training and airspace for civilian traffic.
“While safety requires maximum separation, increasing traffic has brought aircraft closer to each other’s boundaries, so the chances of transgression are high,” said SS Singh, a retired executive director of air traffic monitoring.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi flagged off last week a scheme to make flying cheaper, aiming to put air travel in reach for the country’s middle class with more flights to smaller towns.
The year also saw the highest number — 151 — of pilots being suspended for violating safety protocols, a 38% increase from the previous high of 109 suspensions in 2012.
A majority of them were found to have consumed too much alcohol in either pre- or post-flight medical checks.
HT had, on the basis of figures for the 2016 January-May period, reported in August that the year was shaping up to be the worst in terms of air safety.
Indiscipline and attitude issues were found as major reasons for pilots violating protocol.
But a bulk of last year’s mid-air scares, 22 of 32, were due to errors by the air traffic control (ATC).
ATCs in India, sources there and in the directorate general of civil aviation (DGCA) said, are overwhelmed by widespread issues of bad infrastructure and few staff.
“Under pressure from the International civil aviation organisation (a United Nations specialised agency set up to recommend air safety standards to its member countries), the airport authority of India recruited 1,000 air traffic controllers in 2016 but its three training colleges in Allahabad, Hyderabad and Gondia don’t have the capacity to train all of them at one go,” an official working in the ATC told HT on the condition of anonymity,
He said after training, when new recruits reach control towers for on-the-job training, many have to wait for their turn since there are not enough terminals. Some end up waiting for months, he added.
ATC job is considered to be one of the most stressful jobs in the world. And, according to the source, the mass recruitment has compromised on quality. “Out of the 1,000 BTech graduates, less than 1% come from reputed colleges such as NITs.”
Another ATC official, who too did not want to be identified, said the profession is full of “downsides”.
“Unattractive salary structure is one of them. To control high attrition, AAI introduced new job conditions that include a 5-year bond. If candidates leave within five years, they will have to pay Rs 5 lakh to AAI. This further discourages the best minds to take the ATC job,” he said.
In addition to manpower woes, the ATC sources said, controllers have to make do with very limited airspace despite the increasing flight volumes.
“Delhi’s 65% airspace is with the air force. We have 1,300 daily take-offs and landings of aircraft only in 35% of airspace,” one of the sources said.
PH Singh, former general secretary of the ATC Guild, said developed nations “have a system of need-based optimisation of airspace, but that’s not here in India.”
“Before any enhancement in traffic, there must be a matching enhancement in infrastructure like airspace, technology, number of trained controllers and ground infrastructure. Surveillance and advanced warning and communication systems should be adequate. There should be honest, continued safety assessment,” said Singh.
ATCs, he added, should have the complete authority to say “no”, when they feel they do not have the handling capacity.
Emails to the secretary of civil aviation asking about the safety measures being taken to meet increased flight operations and address near-miss incidents received no response.
Senior officials said such increase in near-miss cases was natural when operations expanded.
“Increasing traffic is no justification for increase in near-miss as human error can be minimised with well-structured training and upgradation of technology,” said SS Panesar, a veteran pilot.
Lalit Gupta, joint director general of DGCA, also did not respond.
However, a senior official from the civil aviation regulator said pilots and ATCs were regularly sent for skill enhancement as needed.
The DGCA also refused to share ICAO’s air safety audit and action-taken report through an application under RTI. Tuhinanshu Sharma, director of Airworthiness in DGCA, replied, “The information is outside the purview of RTI Act.”