On August 22 last year, an air traffic controller saw Indigo flight IGO258 and Air India’s AIC995 approaching the same altitude over New Delhi. Flight AIC995 was asked to turn left to avoid a collision, but that put the plane on the path of another Indigo aircraft, IGO528.
It was a close shave, and in the end the three flights landed safely after the AI plane again made changes to its altitude, a source at the civil aviation ministry told HT.
The incident was among 32 cases of ‘near miss’ in 2016, highest for any year in the history of the country’s civil aviation, according to government data obtained by HT through the Right to Information law. The year beat the previous maximum seen in 2013 by 40%.
Experts say that recent initiatives to boost the aviation sector will only weaken air safety standards, beset at present by a shortage of manpower, training and airspace for civilian traffic.
“While safety requires maximum separation, increasing traffic has brought aircraft closer to each other’s boundaries, so the chances of transgression are high,” said SS Singh, a retired executive director of air traffic monitoring.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi flagged off last week a scheme to make flying cheaper, aiming to put air travel in reach for the country’s middle class with more flights to smaller towns.
The year also saw the highest number — 151 — of pilots being suspended for violating safety protocols, a 38% increase from the previous high of 109 suspensions in 2012.
A majority of them were found to have consumed too much alcohol in either pre- or post-flight medical checks.
HT had, on the basis of figures for the 2016 January-May period, reported in August that the year was shaping up to be the worst in terms of air safety.
Indiscipline and attitude issues were found as major reasons for pilots violating protocol.
But a bulk of last year’s mid-air scares, 22 of 32, were due to errors by the air traffic control (ATC).
ATCs in India, sources there and in the directorate general of civil aviation (DGCA) said, are overwhelmed by widespread issues of bad infrastructure and few staff.
“Under pressure from the International civil aviation organisation (a United Nations specialised agency set up to recommend air safety standards to its member countries), the airport authority of India recruited 1,000 air traffic controllers in 2016 but its three training colleges in Allahabad, Hyderabad and Gondia don’t have the capacity to train all of them at one go,” an official working in the ATC told HT on the condition of anonymity,
He said after training, when new recruits reach control towers for on-the-job training, many have to wait for their turn since there are not enough terminals. Some end up waiting for months, he added.
ATC job is considered to be one of the most stressful jobs in the world. And, according to the source, the mass recruitment has compromised on quality. “Out of the 1,000 BTech graduates, less than 1% come from…