It is hardly a picture that would do the Maharaja proud: an Air-India Airbus A310 pitched forward while being towed away, its collapsed nose-wheel kissing the tarmac. The mishap involving the Air-India (AI) flight from Dubai to Delhi on Monday, which made an emergency landing at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, is a huge embarrassment for an airline that’s looking forward to acquire a global tag. In an unprecedented sequence of events, Air- India’s Shanghai-Bangkok-Delhi flight, a Boeing 767, had earlier made an emergency landing at Delhi airport. That the runway at the country’s premier airport was blocked for 12 hours — because the special recovery equipment required for towing the stricken plane had to be flown in from Mumbai — makes it even more embarrassing for the airline and the aviation authorities. From all accounts, the plane being used on the Shanghai flight was more than 20 years old and that on the Dubai flight was a leased aircraft.
These incidents couldn’t have happened at a worse time as the government is trying to merge the public sector national flag carrier with other lines so that it won’t fly on wings of lead into the future. Unfortunately for AI, its schedule integrity doesn’t help matters much either, when compared with that of other top airlines in the world. Not that this is surprising, given the constraints within which AI evidently operates. Unlike, for instance, Air France with its 300-plus fleet, or British Airways, with its 270-strong aircraft, AI simply does not have enough planes to provide a buffer against engineering problems like last Monday’s. Naturally, delays in one sector affect departures from another. So it’s just as well that the government recently made the decision to buy new medium-capacity long-range aircraft and address AI’s increasing safety and economic concerns.
The government should ensure that bureaucratic delays, punctuated by the allegations of corruption, don’t keep these new aircraft at bay. With competition heating up, and international low cost carriers threatening to enter lucrative routes like Britain and the Gulf, AI doesn’t really have much time to revamp its fleet and refurbish its image. It’s not a pleasant thought that Pakistan International Airlines — once voted Asia’s best line — learned this bitter lesson recently when the European Union barred it from flying to the 27-nation bloc because of safety concerns with its ageing fleet.