Wednesday, February 28, 2024
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Bad Air Days for India

“If we don’t wake up, we deserve it, hai na?” That’s from a recent tweet by actor Richa Chadha after four-hour delays on two back-to-back Indigo domestic flights this almost-gone winter.

Chadha was dismayed enough by the delays to point her tinseltown fingers at what she sees as a virtual duopoly in India’s civil aviation sector. But she wasn’t half as devastated as Sahil Kataria who went the whole hog with fingers, balling up all five of one hand to punch an Indigo pilot after boarding his flight earlier last month.

It was a regular January day in the capital city—cold, foggy, grey and miserable—made worse by the fact that this particular winter had the lowest recorded temperatures in the past 12 years. In this atmosphere, 200-odd passengers watched the clock, waiting eagerly to escape the bitter cold for the warmer climes of Goa.

They had arrived in the wee hours of the morning to catch an early flight out of Indira Gandhi International Airport, hoping to make the most of their time on holiday. Instead, they spent the better part of that day at the airport. Ten hours of waiting later, they were finally let into their Indigo aircraft, only to wait two more hours in their seats.

Patience was running thin as rice paper, and tempers were flaring. At this point, the pilot came out to address the passengers. His intention may have been to allay restlessness, yet perhaps reckoning with his own frustration, he used an accusatory tone with the passengers. In response, Kataria, in his now-infamous yellow hoodie, lunged at the hapless pilot.

On the same spectrum, between fingers and fists, it was food. Around the same time as the punching episode, another Indigo flight, returning from Goa to Delhi, was diverted to Mumbai after severe fog-related delays. Wary of being delayed further, its passengers decided to take matters in their own hands, and parked themselves on the tarmac, pulling out bowls of food for a unique picnic.

According to senior officials who investigated the matter, this happened because the passengers feared the airline may leave them behind. They reasoned that by remaining on the tarmac, the airline would not forget to fly them out. This thoughtful move, however, bypassed important security protocols besides setting a bad precedent.

Chadha and Kataria are on the same side of the aviation nightmare that has unfolded across Indian airports this winter. These incidents are undoubtedly more dramatic and tweetworthy than most other flying mishaps, but they indicate that India’s private aviation industry is at a watershed moment. Are things finally going to change? As the industry grapples with extremities of behaviour—by those who buy tickets to fly, and those who operate airlines without sharing open communication—it must be held accountable for both.

Inordinate delays, haphazard cancellations, lack of sensitivity and empathy towards the other party, spiked airfares and archaic corporate rules determined by the duopoly of TATA Airlines and Indigo Airlines make things more difficult than they need to be. It’s time we stopped blaming the fog for all our woes and named the issue for what it is—time for a system overhaul.

Be You Ever So High

The mess enveloped everything and everybody, celebs included. Comedian Kapil Sharma was part of an Indigo flight whose passengers were left in a bus with closed doors for 50 minutes before boarding their aircraft. Once boarding was done, it was announced that the pilot hadn’t arrived as he was stuck in traffic. Actors Ranvir Shorey (on Indigo) and Jay Bhanushali (on Akasa Air) were both informed of three-hour delays to their flights only after they had checked in as per their usual time. Actor Manoj Joshi’s problems didn’t end with the long delay on his Air India flight. Even the arrival of the baggage on the belt was delayed without explanation or ground help for over 40 minutes. While these celebrity posts on social media do get more traction, everybody seems to have a complaint related to airlines this season.

Why did this happen? More accurately, why does it happen all the time? “The increased chaos in air travel this year can be attributed to a combination of three main factors,” says commercial pilot Asmita Handa. She names runway maintenance delays as the primary one. “Of the four runways available at Delhi airport, only one has been operational for the past six months. The primary runway’s reopening, initially planned for December, was postponed due to the G20 summit, leading to a significant reduction in runway capacity.”

It led to pilots being unable to fly once they had exhausted the maximum time allowed to fly in a day as they waited long hours for visibility to improve at Delhi before they could take off or waited at airports they had been diverted to. And this doesn’t even factor in the lack of sufficient pilots trained to take-off and land on CAT III runways.

Things Get Two Bad

Do the airlines care? Ask Ajay Kumar, a businessman from Delhi who booked tickets last October for a family vacation to Goa in December. Since they were staying in South Goa, he had to pay a pretty penny to book a convenient direct flight between Delhi and Dabolim airport in the south, as this route has seen a decline in the number of flights operated. “Flying to Manohar International Airport in the north would have been much cheaper but the inconvenience of driving down south made me pick the expensive Vistara flight,” he recalls. On the day of departure, he boarded with his pregnant wife, their seven-year-old son, and his brother’s family. There was delay in take-off and landing, but it wasn’t more than a couple of hours.

“Just before we were due to land, however, we were told that our plane was being diverted to the airport in North Goa due to some on-ground issue in South Goa. You can imagine how inconvenient that was. Apart from the expensive ticket, we also ended up paying for two pricey cab services—one which we had pre-booked for pick-up from our South Goa hotel, which we never used, and another which we hired at the airport in North Goa to drive down South!

We later learnt there was a mishap with a military plane that had caused the delay, but I feel the airline should be accountable for some of this financial loss and inconvenience. At least they could have given us vouchers for future flights or reimbursed the cost of the transportation from North to South Goa. It would show they actually cared for their customers.”

There’s just no fair play on fares either. A report released in 2023 by the Airports Council International (ACI Asia-Pacific) revealed that India saw the highest surge in airfare pricing in the Asia Pacific region despite airport charges remaining steady since the Covid-19 pandemic. Ticket prices rose by 41 per cent in comparison to 34 per cent for the UAE, 30 per cent for Singapore and 23 per cent for Australia. The report blamed a rise in fuel prices and inflation as the primary causes, as the former went up by 76 per cent in 2022 compared to 2019. Though this affected international airfares by 50 per cent, domestic routes were less affected.

It takes two to tango, however, and passengers often add to the chaos instead of cooperating to smooth the process. The official adds, “There is increased awareness among customers due to the internet and social media platforms. Every passenger therefore has a disproportionate sense of entitlement in terms of what is owed to them by the airline. They are always on a short fuse and ready to report even a non-incident on social media, in turn igniting a herd mentality among followers who are quick to troll the airline and escalate a situation more than it needs to be.”

Capt. Handa also believes that passengers may inadvertently contribute to chaos during air travel. By becoming impatient and expressing their frustration aggressively towards airline staff, ground crew, or fellow passengers, or by choosing to be disruptive by not following safety instructions, creating disturbances on the plane, or attempting to disembark during delays, they can further delay departure and even seriously compromise the safety of other passengers. “The worst is when passengers vent their frustrations on social media. This can lead to the spread of inaccurate information, defamation and create unnecessary panic or anxiety,” she says.

A Game Plan for the Future

Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia has taken cognisance of the travel chaos and put certain measures in place. Referring to the eating on the tarmac incident in particular, he said, “We have acted immediately in the form of a show cause notice and fine on the concerned operators. Further, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for better communication to passengers were also issued. Implementation is being monitored thrice daily. Corrective action is underway as we speak. Rest assured that any laxity in this regard will be met with zero tolerance,” he said, adding, “The DGCA keeps a strict watch on passenger complaints regarding mistreatment and penalises operators if found guilty.”

While the authorities are trying to appease irate customers, perhaps their efforts need to be increased. Certain concrete measures, which are easy to implement, can alleviate the situation significantly. These include putting in place SOPs tailored to winter operations, which should cover everything from runway maintenance schedules to de-icing procedures. Mandating CAT IIIB compliance is another important measure to enhance safety and minimise disruptions. This should have no exemptions for runways, taxiways, or lighting systems. “Ensuring uniform standards across all aspects of airport infrastructure can significantly improve operational resilience,” says Capt. Handa.

Further, terminal space can be optimised to alleviate congestion and enhance passenger comfort by trimming terminal retail areas and allocating more space for seating. This will certainly improve the airport experience during times of delays or disruptions. Real-time delay updates should be shared willingly and regularly by airlines and airports on their websites and mobile apps along with the specific reasons for the delays. This transparency can help passengers take stock of the situation and make informed decisions.

Capt. Handa also emphasises the importance of adequate staffing and training. “Airlines should ensure they have a sufficient number of pilots and cabin crew on standby duty to cover for any potential disruptions caused by flight duty time limitations or adverse weather conditions. Moreover, only CAT IIIB qualified pilots should be scheduled for winter operations in Delhi to ensure they have the necessary training and experience to handle low-visibility conditions effectively.”

Passengers too must learn to play their role responsibly. They must stay patient and calm since delays are often a result of factors beyond the airline’s control. They must also follow instructions and cooperate with airline staff and crew. A responsible use of social media will ensure that misinformation isn’t spread, dismissing important and constructive feedback in the process. It’s also prudent for passengers to plan ahead by arriving at the airport in advance, ensure they have the necessary documents ready, and even consider the purchase of travel insurance for unforeseen circumstances.

Shrey summarises it best when he says, “Air travel is a shared responsibility for everyone involved. Frustration levels can run high on both ends but there needs to be empathy towards the other party. Passengers should be more understanding toward the crew and the crew must maintain transparency, so that passengers never feel like they are being held hostage.”

What Airlines Can Do

● Put in place Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for winter operations. These SOPs should cover everything from runway maintenance schedules to de-icing procedures, ensuring efficient and safe operations during adverse weather conditions.

● Mandate CAT III B compliance with no exemptions for runways, taxiways, or lighting systems. Ensuring uniform standards across all aspects of airport infrastructure can significantly improve operational resilience.

● Optimise terminal space by trimming retail areas to allocate more space for seating. Increasing seating to 90 per cent of terminal capacity can greatly improve the airport experience, especially during times of delays or disruptions.

● Real-time delay updates should be made compulsory to provide real-time updates on their websites and mobile apps regarding flight delays and the specific reasons for these delays. This transparency helps passengers better understand the situation and make informed decisions.

● Adequate staffing and training. Airlines should ensure they have a sufficient number of pilots and cabin crew on standby duty to cover for any potential disruptions caused by flight duty time limitations or adverse weather conditions.

Moreover, only CAT IIIB-qualified pilots should be scheduled for winter operations in Delhi to ensure they have the necessary training and experience to handle low-visibility conditions effectively.

What Passengers Can Do

● Stay patient and calm as that helps maintain a more positive atmosphere.

● Follow instructions and cooperate with airline staff and crew. Disruptive behaviour can lead to further complications and delays.

● Use social media responsibly and avoid spreading misinformation. Provide accurate and constructive feedback rather than defame airlines.

● Plan ahead and arrive at the airport well in advance, with necessary documents ready, and consider travel insurance for unforeseen circumstances.

● If facing issues, passengers should approach airline staff or customer service representatives politely and seek assistance. Airlines are more likely to help when passengers maintain a respectful demeanour

December is the Cruellest Month

2,000 Passengers denied boarding

35,000 Passengers impacted by cancellations

3,64,000 Passengers affected by delays

The Late, Late Show

In December 2023, the on time performance (OTP) of airlines fell sharply. A snapshot of the how the airlines did:

72.7% Akasa

70.8% Vistara

68% IndiGo

65.7% AIX Connect

52.4% Air India

29.9% SpiceJet

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