The Opposition in both Houses demanded a probe into the matter to 'find out whether there was a conspiracy'.
Aviation regulator Director General of Civil Aviation has ordered an inquiry into as many as three flights, including one carrying West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, reporting low fuel at the same time, as Trinamool Congress and other opposition parties alleged conspiracy and threat to her life.
TMC raised the issue in both Houses of Parliament alleging that Banerjee’s flight was made to hover over Kolkata airport on Wednesday evening for about half an hour despite the pilot reporting that the plane was low on fuel.
The government vehemently denied any design saying just when West Bengal chief minister’s Patna-Kolkata Indigo flight reported low on fuel, two other flights of Air India and SpiceJet also called in with the same problem.
IndiGo, meanwhile, said its aircraft carrying Mamata Banerjee was delayed due to congestion before making a normal landing and had adequate fuel.
In a detailed statement, IndiGo said the flight 6E 342 with 174 passengers onboard made a ‘normal landing’ at Kolkata airport and that its captain did not declare a fuel priority or an emergency, though there was some misunderstanding between the Air Traffic Controller and the pilot.
IndiGo, in the statement, said the fuel on arrival was more than the minimum diversion fuel and there has been no violation of regulatory requirements.
‘The flight was kept on hold for landing due to air traffic congestion at Kolkata. The pilot operating 6E 342 had advised the ATC that he has eight minutes of extra holding fuel over Kolkata (destination) before commencing diversion to the planned alternate.
‘However, this information was misunderstood by the Air Traffic Controller who assumed that the aircraft had only eight minutes of total fuel left,’ it said.
According to IndiGo, the misinterpretation of information by ATC controller, led the ATC to instruct fire engines and ambulances to be stationed at the airport.
‘We would like to clarify -- IndiGo captain at no stage declared a fuel priority or an emergency. Subsequently, the airplane made a normal landing at Kolkata airport at 8.40 PM (delayed by an hour due to congestion).
‘The fuel on arrival was more than the minimum diversion fuel. There has been no violation or breech of any regulatory requirement in the above mentioned scenario,’ it said.
Banerjee’s flight hovered over Kolkata airport for only 13 minutes and it was ensured that the aircraft landed in a safe and orderly manner, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha were informed by Civil Aviation Minister Ashok Gajapathi Raju and Minister of State Jayant Sinha respectively.
The DGCA has ordered an inquiry to find out how three flights at the same time could fly low on fuel into Kolkata when the norms mandate them to carry enough fuel to enable hovering for 30-40 minutes as well as to carry it to the nearest diversion airport, which in this case was Bhubaneshwar, they said.
Parliamentary Affairs Minister Ananth Kumar said in Lok Sabha the DGCA report will be tabled in the House.
Alleging a threat to the life of Banerjee, who is at the forefront of anti-demonetisation campaign, TMC leader in Lok Sabha Sudip Bandopadhyay said the government should rise to the occasion and find out whether there was a conspiracy.
Mallikarjun Kharge, leader of the Congress in Lok Sabha, said that Banerjee has been travelling to various parts of the country protesting the government’s move to ban 500 and 1,000 rupee notes causing hardships to common people.
"Her life is in danger and ATC should have allowed her flight to land first. The VVIP flight should have been allowed to land in priority," he said.
Civil Aviation Minister Ashok Gajapathi Raju said: “It is incorrect to say that the flight was hovering over Kolkata for 30-40 minutes. The flight was hovering for only 13 minutes. The DGCA has ordered an inquiry how all the three flights were flying low fuel.”
He also said that none of these three flights sought priority landing, despite being asked by the ATC.
In the Lok Sabha, the Parliamentary Affairs Minister said the House prays for the well being of the West Bengal chief minister and all other passengers who were in the flight.
Kumar said life and safety of Banerjee was paramount and the incident was a matter of concern and security of Banerjee and other passengers is the responsibility of the government.
In the Rajya Sabha, Derek O'Brien (TMC) tried to raise the issue no sooner had the House assembled for the day, saying Banerjee was flying from Patna to Kolkata on an IndiGo flight which normally takes an hour to reach.
About 200 km from Kolkata, the ATC informed that the flight was eighth in landing sequence but the pilot relayed a message that it was low on fuel and should be allowed to give priority landing, he said.
Despite the warning, the flight was made to hover over the Kolkata airport for at least 15 minutes and by some count 30 minutes, he said adding besides Banerjee, there were 100 other passengers on the flight whose life was put to danger.
"Today it is one opposition leader... this opposition leader is at the forefront (of anti demonetisation campaign)," he said, adding questions are being raised if it is a conspiracy to eliminate opposition leaders.
Stating that the flight landed under full emergency conditions, he asked why was the pilot denied permission to land. “I am not insinuating anything but there is a school of thought which believes it may be a conspiracy,” he said.
Minister of State for Civil Aviation Jayant Sinha said just when the IndiGo flight called in to report low fuel, two other planes of Air India and SpiceJet also did the same.
"Air safety of all passengers is of utmost importance to us... we did everything possible that every flight landed safely," he said, adding 'passenger security is of utmost importance and we are doing the best and no one should have any doubt on it'.
He said the DGCA has specific standards for low fuel and priority landing and all procedures were fully followed.
As per norms, every plane is mandated to carry enough fuel to allow 30-40 minutes of hovering and traveling to nearest diversion airport.
Sinha said the IndiGo flight took off from Patna at 7.36 pm on Wednesday and landed at Kolkata at 8.40 pm after hovering for 13 minutes.
"At no point was anybody's life at risk or danger. All safety procedure were fully followed," he said.
The minister said the DGCA will probe as to how three flights could fly with low fuel despite strict norms.
Aircraft instrumentation would also be checked to find out how much fuel was there when the flights took off and whether they carried enough fuel, he said.
"Strict action will be taken for any violation," he said adding criminal investigation would be conducted. "We will do the needful. Passenger safety is number one priority and will remain so."
Leader of Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad said it was a very serious issue as any plane flying on low fuel should be given top priority in landing and sought a probe into the incident.
Ram Gopal Yadav (Samajwadi Party) said the incident has created doubts in minds of people and an inquiry must be ordered and its report tabled in the Parliament.
Mayawati (Bahujan Samaj Party) said the government should rise above party politics and order an inquiry, while Sharad Yadav (Janata Dal-United) also termed the incident as serious and sought a probe.
Prem Chand Gupta (Rashtriya Janata Dal) said when a flight is low on fuel it should be allowed to land first and it should not be converted into ‘an opportunity to take out vengeance’.
Rajeev Shukla (Congress) said how could airplanes be allowed to take-off when they are low on fuel.
K T S Tulsi (Nominated) said based on the material brought out so far, it is a fit case for registering an FIR for attempt to murder and investigating the case.
Photograph: PTI Photo