On the night of May 7, passengers had a miraculous escape when an Indigo and an AirAsia flight were seconds away from a collision 33,800 feet above Maharashtra’s Sindhudurg district but luckily averted a mid-air catastrophe.
The air-traffic controller (ATC) asked the Delhi-Bengaluru Indigo aircraft to descend but the signal was wrongly picked by the AirAsia flight, which started to lower its altitude.
At 10.25pm, the two aircraft were just 25-40 seconds from crashing into each other. The accident was averted when the Indigo A320 — twice the size of a whale — dived 800 feet in less than 30 seconds.
The hair-raising account is only one of scores of such near-misses, whose numbers have spiked over the last four years, data from Right to Information queries filed by HT show.
An HT investigation based on RTI data between 2011 and 2016 has found a 78% rise in the incidents of such potential mid-air collisions between January and May this year, when compared to the same period last year.
The data also suggests that 2016 might see the highest number of such near-misses —known as airprox (air proximity) — if trends from the first five months hold.
Between 2011 and May this year, 129 such potential collisions have been reported. More than half of these are because of ATC error and nearly a fifth because of mistakes committed by the flight crew.
“We have taken a very serious view of this increase in number of near-misses,” said Lalit Gupta, joint director of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation.
The Airports Authority of India that controls the ATC and the airlines mentioned in the story did not respond to HT queries.
Experts say the alarming rise is because of a crippling staff crunch in the ATC that is working without a quarter of its sanctioned strength, as India approaches the 20th anniversary of the world’s deadliest mid-air collision that occurred near Delhi.
In November 1996, a Kazakh and a Saudi aircraft crashed into each other in the skies above Chakhri-Dadri near the Capital, killing all 349 people on board. A probe cleared the ATC but held that a miscommunication between the controller and the Kazakhstan pilot led to the collision.
An analysis of DGCA records on near-misses from January 2011 to May 31 this year indicates 2016 could see the highest number of potential collisions since 2011, which witnessed the most such incidents, 29.
There have been 16 incidents this year till May 31. Compare this with first five months of previous years: in 2012, there were 8 cases while 9 cases each were recorded in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
Even in 2011, the first five months witnessed only 13 incidents. Earlier this month, HT had also reported that safety violations by pilots are also up 30% from the corresponding period last year.
“The numbers of near misses are alarming. The ATC needs to urgently increase staff strength and airline operators need to keep doing refresher courses for staff,” said Mohan Ranganathan, a civil aviation safety expert.
Gupta said the DGCA asked all air operators and ATC to provide detailed classroom sessions on Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) and crew resource management training.
Officials say the rise in potential collisions is the result of a steady climb in air-traffic.
But DGCA data on flight operations show only a 17% increase on air operations in 2016 compared to same period last year.
In 2016, till May 31, there were 366,781 departures, whereas it was 312,542 for the corresponding period in 2015.