|Rediff India Abroad Home | All the sections|
Fog: Why airlines are in a daze
George Iype | January 05, 2006
The thick fog that envelops large parts of north India during winter has turned airports -- especially Delhi's busy Indira Gandhi International Airport -- into a veritable battle zone, with irate passengers and helpless airlines officials cursing the weather.
Not only does the fog upset the travel plans of thousands of passengers, it also spells major losses for airlines with dozens of flights cancelled, delayed or suspended.
On an average, at least 20 flights are either delayed or cancelled at Delhi airport in late December and early January, reveals an Airports Authority of India official.
Each morning, some 40 domestic flights and over a dozen international flights land at the Indira Gandhi International Airport.
Worst hit by the fog are the mushrooming low-cost airlines because they operate on tight schedules, a small number of flights and wafer thin margins.
The cancellation of even a single flight hits budget airlines hard because:
Take, for instance, Christmas.
On December 25, 2005, as many as 11 Air Deccan flights were cancelled because of fog.
Forced by the dent the fog is making on its bottomline, airlines like Air Deccan have embarked on new winter plans.
Air Deccan recently released a new schedule for the winter to ensure that its flights operate with minimal disruption due to the northern Indian fog.
'I have rewritten the commercial schedule of the flights, which will be of major help if there is a crisis in a city,' Warwick Brady, Air Deccan chief operating officer, told a press conference last week.
Is there no solution to the woes faced by airlines and passengers due to the fog that envelops north India every year?
India has seen a 24 per cent increase in domestic air travel during the last one year, primarily due to the launch of a host of low-cost airlines.
Kingfisher Airlines, SpiceJet, Go Airlines and Paramount Aviation began flying last year. Inter Globe Aviation (or IndiGo) and Indus Airways will fly in coming months.
Why should the fog affect the airlines?
Most Indian pilots are not trained on the Category III B Instrument Landing System, which allows smooth landing in conditions where visibility is as low as 50 metres.
Only about 90 Indian pilots are trained to use the Category III B Instrument Landing System, according to civil aviation ministry records. All these pilots are employed with Indian (previously Indian Airlines) or Air India.
Category IIIB landing means a landing following a precision approach using the Instrument Landing System with:
Two years ago, the Airports Authority of India installed the costly Instrument Landing System at Delhi airport to beat the annual fog that upset flight schedules.
But the gadget has not been put to full use because few pilots are trained on the Category III B Instrument Landing System.
The civil aviation ministry says it is not lack of technology or instruments that creates chaos during the winter, but the private airlines' attitude. These airlines, the ministry says, are unwilling to train its pilots on the Category III B Instrument Landing System.
The disruption in flight schedules in December forced Civil Aviation Secretary Ajay Prasad to convene a meeting of all private airlines.
'We have asked private airline pilots not to fly in thick fog conditions unless they have the requisite training,' Prasad said after the meeting.
'I have told them (the private airlines)that if you are not equipped to fly during fog we may have to restrict the flight schedules next winter,' he added.
The ministry has laid down a number of other guidelines to operate flights during foggy conditions.
Private airlines, which have been told to train their pilots so that they can land in foggy conditions, are hesitant to obey the government directive.
Training a single pilot on the Category III B Instrument Landing System costs up to Rs 12 lakh (Rs 1.2 million).
Besides the cost factor, government rules make it tough for pilots to qualify for ILS training, says an official at a low-cost airline.
"We are not ready to invest such huge amounts for a two-week fog problem at this juncture," the airline official told rediff India Abroad.
The Airport Authority of India says pilots must have at least 500 hours of flying experience before they are trained to use the Category III B system. It then takes six months for pilots to get a certificate for commercial flying.