How IndiGo got past its rivals and flew CAT-III within five months

Aviation regulator DGCA has pulled up Spicejet, Air India and Air India Express for not being adequately prepared to deal with poor visibility during the winter.

Providing special training to pilots in order to help them deal with just about 15 days of fog-induced low visibility entails an additional cost that airlines are generally averse to incurring. Besides, it is quite a cumbersome task to get DGCA approval. Vistara and AirAsia India, for instance, were given the to go-ahead to fly in low-visibility conditions only recently, more than a year after commencing operations. However, it took the country’s largest carrier, IndiGo, only five months to get DGCA's nod, meaning it was deemed capable to operate in low-visibility conditions in the very first winter of operations. This is the story of how IndiGo managed that almost a decade ago.

Every winter, fog conditions disrupt flights, giving the media a big enough reason to make a noise about flight schedules going haywire, and spurring the aviation ministry to take cognizance of the CAT-III compliance issue. The minister himself calls airline CEOs and owners to check on fog preparedness.

“Pilots need to have practised landings of minimum hours and simulator training and the DGCA has to be provided with supporting documents and data from flight data recorder,” says an operations head of an airline.

IndiGo promoters, Rahul Bhatia and Rakesh Gangwal, had to be given credit for putting in place a team that was trained to meet the operational grind characteristic of the highly-regulated Indian aviation sector.

Having a senior Indian pilot as head of operations from the beginning, IndiGo knew how business could be impacted in December and January, when fog conditions are usually the worst. “When the airline did its training with Airbus, it asked the manufacturer to train the pilots to operate an A320 Neo aircraft in low-visibility conditions up to CAT-III,” says a person who was associated with IndiGo during its formative years. "So, everyone who came on board had a certificate from Airbus stating that he/she was competent to operate under such conditions."

Knowing the bureaucratic structure of the DGCA, the airline didn't wait for the onset of winter. Instead, it gave a report to the DGCA every month, about the number of trained pilots and their preparedness to fly CAT-III B in the winter of 2006.

In the winter preparedness meeting held in October 2006, and chaired by senior ministry officials, this is what IndiGo owner Rahul Bhatia is believed to have told the ministry: “Sir, we have spent millions of dollars training our pilots to become CAT-III compliant, and we reported it to DGCA every month."

With numerous flights getting cancelled, the ministry wasted no time.

“The ministry decided to give CAT-III B approval to IndiGo straightway in order to improve the conditions,” says a person who was present at the October 2006 meeting.

So, while the likes of SpiceJet and GoAir struggled to get approval even though thay had commenced operations before IndiGo, it was IndiGo that was flying CAT-III B in 2006 -- only five months after it took to the skies.

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