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By Devsagar Singh

The drama over West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s Patna- Kolkata flight last week was entirely avoidable. Her party Trinamool Congress made a mountain of a molehill. The axe ultimately fell on six pilots of three airlines involved in the “incident”. They have been grounded by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), the airlines regulatory body under the Ministry of Civil Aviation.

It all happened on November 30 when Mamata Banerjee was on board an Indigo flight from Patna to Kolkata after attending a political event in the Bihar capital. Minutes before the scheduled landing time, the aircraft pilot was told to hover around as two other flights belonging to Air India and Spicejet were ahead in landing sequence. This is a standard practice followed by air traffic control around the world.

What caused confusion and alarm was the Indigo pilot’s routine response that his aircraft was running low on fuel while having a VIP passenger on board. The ATC personnel did not panic because they knew that all aircraft in flight mode mandatorily carry extra fuel for at least half an hour. If the Indigo flight had not been able to land in Kolkata for some emergent reason, Bhuvaneshwar airport in Orissa was well within range.

The aircraft did manage to land in Kolkata but not without full drama. They made it appear as a full blown emergency situation sending alarm bells to the Ministry of Civil Aviation and, of course, the Government at the Centre. Again, in line with a standard procedure, the DGCA ordered an enquiry and six pilots have now been de-rostered or taken off the flight duty—two each from the Indigo, Air India and Spicejet. The Air India and Spicejet too got involved on account of reported low fuel in their aircraft as well.

It goes without saying that the whole episode would have passed off as a non-event had there been no VIP passenger like Mamata Banerjee on board. Hovering over airports before landing is a routine exercise by aircraft, specially in busy airports like Delhi and Mumbai. It is only in emergency that aircraft choose to land in alternative airports.

Clearly, Trinamool’s concern could not have been ignored in these tumultuous times. Just days before, Trinamool shook the Modi Government for what it saw as an alarming movement of the armed forces in Kolkata forcing the CM to spend the night in the Secretariat headquarters.

The mid-air drama, however, had one positive effect. The airlines are being reminded to ensure that their aircraft carry more than adequate fuel while in flight. It is true that some airlines cut corners on fuel as the DGCA has pointed out. It is for the pilots to make sure that the aircraft is equipped with sufficient fuel to see through emergency situations. Airlines in the present case—Indigo, Air India and SpiceJet—have, however, claimed that the aircraft were not short on fuel. This is for the DGCA to find out. Indeed, no airline management would like to risk such a situation where human lives are involved, leave aside expensive aircraft. Even so, it calls for a through probe.

It is all the more necessary in view of winter fogs which affect airports like Delhi, Lucknow, Patna, among others, due to poor visibility forcing approaching aircraft to hover around the airports for longer period. There have been instances of long distance international flights failing to land in Delhi due to poor visibility during winter. Such flights are normally diverted to Mumbai airport.

Most international airports are now equipped with the latest version of what is known as Instrumental Landing System (ILS) which help land aircraft even in very poor visibility. Pilots need special training to use ILS in these airports. Even aircraft have to be equipped with special gadgets to be able to use ILS. Since dense fogs occur only for a few days in airports like Delhi, not much attention is paid to ILS by domestic airlines. It is also expensive and airlines seek to avoid it due to heavy capital expenditure involved.

India being a big destination for international business travel and tourism, airlines cannot afford to lower their guard on safety and security. It is for the regulatory authorities to make sure those airlines and airports are equipped with just the latest in terms of navigational aids.
(IPA Service)

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