India's aviation boom has made it possible for hundreds of thousands of people to fly for the first time in their lives, but the increasing aircraft congestion could also be risking passenger safety, experts say.
“There is a series of compromises taking place in the interest of easing air traffic. Like in Delhi, they have opened the second runway, but is it as airworthy as the first? No,” said retired Air Marshal Denzil Keelor, an aviation consultant.
From three domestic airlines in 2001, the country now has at least 10 domestic carriers, many of which also fly overseas. Private airlines account for about 60 per cent of the domestic passenger traffic.
“Incidents of air-miss are increasing significantly, and it is difficult to track and investigate every incident. With all these new airlines coming up, many incidents are not reported,” said a government aviation official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to the media.
If the rule book is followed, every single air-miss should be investigated by the DGCA with the questioning of pilots, and the perusal of flight and ATC records, in a process that takes up to three months. Such inquiries help take steps to prevent similar incidents in the future.
But the DGCA's employee strength has not increased in tune with the aviation boom. In 2001, when there were only three airline, the organization had 11 officers investigating air safety cases across India. They still number the same.
“If the infrastructure does not keep pace with the growth of traffic, it leads to congestion, which leads to a greater probability of accidents,” Keelor said.
But Director-General of Civil Aviation Kanu Gohain, who controls India’s civil aviation safety, denied that the increasing number of airlines was linked to the higher air-miss cases.
“There have been some cases which were very close, but they are rare,” Gohain told HT. “Even though there is congestion, the radars have been made more effective. India is also the second country in the world that has made it mandatory for planes to have collision-avoidance systems.”
However, India’s near-miss cases occur from far fewer flights annually, when compared with many other international airports.
Delhi and Mumbai handle the bulk of India’s air traffic. While the Mumbai airport handled about 1.53 lakh take-offs and landings, the Delhi airport handled 1.22 lakh aircraft movements in 2004-5, the last year for which such figures are available.
In comparison, Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson, the world’s busiest airport in terms of aircraft movement, handled 9.67 lakh take-offs and landings in 2005 and Chicago O’Hare handled 9.42 lakh aircraft movements.
In terms of passenger traffic, more than 6.1 crore international passengers boarded and disembarked at London Heathrow in 2005, according to the International Civil Aviation Organisation. Mumbai handled 1.5 crore passengers and Delhi 1.2 crore passengers in 2004-5.
“Apart from the higher density of traffic, everyone is in a hurry, and under pressure. There are greater waiting periods on the runway, greater anxiety, and the retirement age for pilots has been increased from 60 to 65,” Keelor said.
India has 125 airports, including 11 international airports. They annually handle about 6 crore passengers and 1.3 million tonnes of cargo. By 2010, India is expected to have 9 crore passengers, according to industry projections.
At least five planes are being added to Indian airline fleets every month, said Kapil Kaul, India chief of the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation. According to the Centre’s projections, India's domestic airlines, which currently have about 210 aircraft, will need 650 by the year 2012.