On an average, once every 17 days in 2005, two planes came dangerously close to colliding over Indian skies, according to an official count. This is a three-fold increase in near-misses in the past five years.
Statistics compiled by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) show that there were seven near-misses in 2001 and 2002, 13 in 2003, 15 in 2004 and 21 in 2005 involving passenger and cargo aircraft, domestic and foreign airlines.
The figure for 2006 is still being compiled.
In comparison, there were just 21 such close shaves in the United Kingdom over five years — between 1999 and 2004 — according to the last available figures from the United Kingdom’s Civil Aviation Authority.
Director-General of Civil Aviation Kanu Gohain said India’s skies were among the safest in the world, and the increased near-miss count was due to instances being recorded more faithfully with improved surveillance, not air-traffic congestion.
But other aviation officials said the actual numbers were even higher, as the number of airlines and flights increased much faster than that of adequate equipment and staff. Indeed they claimed many cases still went unreported.
Two airborne aircraft coming within 1,000 feet of each other is regarded as a near-miss. Planes fitted with Airborne Collision Avoidance Systems set off alarms when another plane enters their space, so that preventive action can be taken.
The reasons for the higher number of near-misses include fatigue among air traffic controllers (ATC) and pilots, experts say.
ATCs have six-hour shifts with breaks but “you cannot eat or drink, or even make polite conversation with the guy in the next seat while on the job — one mistake, and it could be about people’s lives," said an ATC official, declining to be named.