It is more than six-years-old but still dubbed as 'fledgling' airline by many and 'faulty' by many others. Be it the planes or pilots, teething problems keep haunting the Alliance Air, the subsidiary of Indian Airlines.
The July 17, 2002 Alliance Air Boeing 737 crash at Patna airport exposed many chinks in the airlines safety standards but not before killing 60 people -- 55 on board and 5 on ground.
Its aircraft already had the reputation of 'engineers' nightmare', yet big questions were raised about the condition of its Boeing 737s, their maintenance, vintage and usefulness, most of which remain largely unanswered till date. The official word on the crash: Loss of control due to pilot error.
The Boeing 737 involved in the Patna crash was to be phased out by the end of that year as per government guidelines not to allow any aircraft to operate beyond 20 years. Internationally, the norm is to not to fly a plane for more than 12 years, say aviation experts.
According to Aviation Safety Network, the Boeing 737 involved in Patna crash had a brush with disaster in 1986 too while it was flying under Indian Airlines banner. On January 15, 1986, the pilot tried to land at Tiruchirapalli 'below weather minima'. During a go-around, the wing touched the run-way. The six-member crew and 122 on board had a narrow escape. After a touch-up and some repairs, the same aircraft came back to the IA fleet again, only to crash in Patna later. It was completely destroyed in the fire caused by the crash.
Alliance Air, which came into existence in 1996, has 12 aircraft and at least six of them are 20 years old. Most of others are over 18 years old. The aircraft were leased to Alliance Air by Indian Airlines after the former was hived off in a bid to optimise the utilisation of the domestic carrier's Boeing fleet.
However, the fact that IA flights are leased to Alliance Air itself becomes a problem for the latter because the aircraft are too old, consume more fuel and need serious upgradation and maintenance, which is again expensive.
But the Alliance Air has not been able to upgrade its current fleet or buy new aircraft because of financial crunch. It needs new aircraft quick enough as the current ones are too old to maintain. IA is considering to buy 100-seater jets for the airline.
If international prices of aviation turbine fuel escalate, Alliance Air was likely to be hit more than others as it spends much more on fuel per mile due to its outdated technology.
Alliance Air has been having problems with its pilots too who have been demanding pay parity with their counterparts in Indian Airlines. Further, it doesn't have adequate number of pilots of its own. It hires pilots on contract to optimise flying hours, which has also raised doubts about the flying experience of the pilots.
But many experts say that maintenance, rather than age, is the key. And Alliance Air is yet to come up to the expectations in that regard.
The Lease Agreement
Under the lease agreement with Indian Airlines, Alliance Air flies routes that the parent company does not operate on. The Boeing 737s are being provided to Alliance Air on a wet lease of around Rs. 10.7 million per month. This includes the major maintenance, spares and ground handling services being provided to the subsidiary by Indian Airlines.
With the hiving off of Alliance Air, Indian Airlines has managed to increase the per-aircraft utilisation of its Boeing 737 fleet to over 2,800 hours per annum. Alliance also enabled the domestic carrier to smoothen the career progression of its pilots who are now able to move to the position of commander more easily. One additional commander contributes Rs. 70 million as revenue to Indian Airlines.
Company sources said the fleet of 12 Boeing 737s has a revenue earning potential of Rs. 5 billion, the amount Paid by it per annum towards the lease of the Boeing aircraft and other services.