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BW Businessworld

On Foggy Grounds

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 Now that the fog has somewhat cleared up, let us think about it clearly. The fog is nothing new to Delhi. Every December-January, travelling in and out of the city becomes a nightmare. Hundreds of flights are delayed, rescheduled or diverted. Passengers are stranded, tempers are frayed, the airport is bursting at the seams, and everyone blames each other.

Yet, why does it appear every year that this calamity has hit Delhi for the first time ever? Why can't this yearly feature be avoided? I asked airlines, the airport, the Directorate-General Civil Aviation (DGCA) and the Ministry of Civil Aviation, and found everyone pointing fingers at each other.
Trying to avoid this happening, just before the fog set in around November this year, DGCA asked airlines how many of their aircraft were able to operate in low visibility (CAT III A and B compliant), and how many pilots were qualified to land in such conditions. The list given by most airlines was impressive. Jet Airways, for instance, said 40 of its aircraft were CAT III compliant and 437 pilots were trained to operate in low-visibility conditions. Similarly, the National Aviation Company of India (NACIL), which runs Air India, said it had 75 aircraft that were compliant, and 294 pilots trained to operate in low visibility.
But what happened was very different. The fog this year set in around December-end and was at its worst during 7-27 January. To some extent, it is to be expected that during the period fewer than normal flights would take off and land. But this year was particularly bad. A large number of flights had to take off and land using low visibility procedures (LVPs), for several hours in a day, and 200 flights were diverted, 350 were rescheduled and 339 were cancelled.
But more surprising is the performance of different airlines, which quite belied their claims. For instance, corporate India’s preferred airline Jet Airways was able to pull off a total of — hold your breath — eight landings and 12 takeoffs in 20 days when LVPs were applicable. Worse, its subsidiary JetLite was able to land one and depart one these 20 days. In fact, Jet was outdone by low-cost airline GoAir, which managed to pull off 21 landings and nine takeoffs, according to DGCA data.
In general, low-cost airlines performed much better than many of the premier carriers. Airlines such as IndiGo, which said it had 22 aircraft that were CAT III-complaint and 155 pilots trained, and GoAir (eight aircraft compliant and 36 trained pilots) performed a lot better than Jet and Air India. For that matter, 40 flights of IndiGo took off and 40 landed. SpiceJet was able to land 12 and take off 13. This is when all the three, IndiGo, SpiceJet and GoAir, have many less scheduled flights through the day than, say, Jet or Air India. On an average day, for instance, Jet Airways and JetLite carry out 46 and 23 landings, against Go Air’s 15 and IndiGo’s 30.
A notable exception is Kingfisher Airlines, which did much better than its full-service rivals. As many as 74 Kingfisher (and Kingfisher Red) flights landed and 40 took off, much closer to its claims of 35 compliant aircraft and 277 trained pilots.
I got back to the airlines, mainly Jet, to find out why what happened was so different from what they had claimed. I found that most of Jet’s fleet is CAT III A-complaint, which basically means they can operate in visibility higher than CAT III B (this is when visibility is really low). Most pilots also are trained only in CAT III A conditions, not in CAT III B. In fact, most of its B-737 fleet, which usually operates in and out of the capital, is not yet equipped. The airline said that its CAT III B upgrade programmme was “on track”, whatever that means. Despite operating for years and being a witness to the fog every year, I find it illogical that this should be so. 
In contrast, 100 per cent of IndiGo’s aircraft and over 80 per cent of its pilots are fitted and trained to operate in the worst-possible visibility conditions. Even a tiny airline like GoAir has all its aircraft (total fleet of eight) equipped and 72 per cent of their total pilots trained to fly in such conditions.
This is not to say the airport’s equipment and procedures are perfectly in order (the runway visual range equipment desperately needs some looking into) or that DGCA is the best-prepared or most vigilant of regulators, but one would expect more from India’s premier airlines. If I were the CEO of one of the low-cost airlines, I would launch an advertising campaign showing the public what’s what. And a piece of advice: next year, to avoid all the frustration of cancelled, diverted and rescheduled flights, it may be better to hop on to a low-cost airline than stick to the old and trusted.
anjulibhargava at gmail dot com
(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 22-02-2010)