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Fog delays: Why must we suffer every winter?

Chaos has been the buzzword at the Delhi airport for most of the past week.

india Updated: Jan 11, 2004 10:19 IST

Chaos has been the buzzword at the Delhi airport for most of the past week. Flights delayed, flights cancelled, irate passengers inside terminals, interminable waits for those coming to pick them up.

But the worst was the uncertainty — not just about whether they would reach on time, but also about whether they would reach at all. Several passengers on the Christmas Eve flights to Delhi actually landed back in the city they had started from because they could not land at Delhi.

But passengers can take heart in the fact that they were not alone in their suffering — the weather did not spare even the prime minister and instead of landing at Delhi on December 24 as he was scheduled to, he reached Jaipur on his way back from Lucknow. He completed his journey to Delhi by road.

What puzzles passengers about the fog, however, is not the flight delays or cancellations but the reason why these tribulations have become an annual ritual. It’s not as if the fog has appeared for the first time this year. We suffer every year and the current civil aviation minister promises that things will become better the coming year. Only, things remain the same.

Internationally, several airports function in worse fog conditions — in fact, several airports are fog-bound for a greater part of the year. Do they shut shop because of poor visibility? Not so. Most international airports have an instrument aided landing system that works on the principle of radar signals to guide aircraft to land even in conditions of zero visibility. This is the CAT III C instrument-aided landing system which is not there in India.

At the Delhi airport, we have the CAT III A system that is two notches below the CAT III C and works only when the visibility conditions are up to 200 m.

It was almost a decade ago that we bought this hugely expensive system from the American radar company, Raytheon. But for whatever reasons, it was only last year that the equipment was finally installed at the airport and became functional.

So, logically speaking, we should’ve no problems now. But things are not so simple. The equipment may be in place at the airport, but corresponding transponders which are to be installed in aircraft and allow the pilots to read the radar signals that guide the landing have yet to be fixed in the entire fleet of domestic carriers. Even after transponders are installed — which involves huge expenditure — there’s the issue of pilot training.

At present, 21 of the 35 pilots of Indian Airlines who are eligible to go in for CAT III A landings have completed their training. Till 24 December, IA had completed 12 CAT IIIA landings. But all this comes at a cost. Rupees 7.5 lakh for the initial pilot training and Rs 2.5 lakh per year to put the trained pilots through refresher courses. It is perhaps this cost — plus the cost of installing transponders in the aircraft — that is keeping the private domestic carriers away from committing their time and resources for the training.

The private airlines argue that the cost-benefit ratio may not be in favour of investing so much money on training pilots to use equipment that may come in use only for a fortnight a year. Some suggest that better flight schedule management — which ensures that instead of early morning and late evening take-offs and landings, the window period of relatively better visibility between noon and 5 pm is used. But with limited fleets, where one particular aircraft is pressed into serving several destinations during the day, one missed connection leaves the entire network short, especially during peak tourist season.

If there are several factors relating to fog that are outside the purview of the authorities, there are several others that can be done. Better information systems to keep passengers informed about schedules, better waiting facilities at the airport — for both the passengers inside the terminal and for those waiting outside and proper facilitation in case flights are cancelled.

But for now, passengers hoping for an international experience at Delhi airport can dream on. Fog will remain the annual visitor that can put your travel plans completely out of sync.

First Published: Dec 29, 2003 00:52 IST