IndiGo's Neo fiasco: Let's stop the sensationalisation and face the facts

Last week low-fare airline IndiGo was forced to ground three A320 Neo aircraft after the  European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) issued an order asking airlines to ground aircraft that had engines of a certain serial number made by Pratt & Whitney.

This is the second time the airline has been forced to ground Neo aircraft. Last year at peak, 9 aircraft were grounded. IndiGo was compensated for the loss, as it has said in its latest earnings call.

In January this year, the airline faced two incidents of engine shutdown in the air. In both the cases, the pilots followed the standard operating procedure and shut down the engine after detecting a problem. As soon as IndiGo announced the decision to ground the planes this year, speculation was rife whether it was safe to fly the airline at all. Just to set the record straight and to make sure we — passengers — are not in any danger, I did a bit of research on the subject and here’s what I understood.

One, at no point did two engines fail while in the air — unlike what many media reports might have led people to conclude. Second, although leaked Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) documents said that the airline had 69 engine “failures” in a span of 18 months — between March 2016 and September 2017 — the company has clarified that none of those 69 engine snags occurred mid-air. As many as 42 replacements were on account of some problem with “oil chips” and another 21 due to “distress in combustion chamber”; but all were detected during inspections on the ground. Nonetheless, both the problems occurred well before they ought to. 

Is safety still a worry? I would say yes. Two points worry me. One, the two January incidents occurred with the same engines that had been replaced after the manufacturer carried out some modifications and after being declared fit. Then, can we say with 100 per cent surety that the problems have been fixed?

An IndiGo source I spoke to underplayed the whole issue when he described it to me as an “irritant” more than anything else. But this “irritant” combined with another factor is what worries me.

It is a known fact that IndiGo pays its pilots handsomely but it also extracts its pound of flesh. More than one IndiGo pilot in the past had told me that stress and fatigue (and even monotony) were nagging issues for them and I know a few who have even resigned on these grounds.

It may not be a fact many acknowledge but pilots too are human. After last week’s panic — created more by sensational reporting than anything else — at least two IndiGo commanders I spoke to said that the first question they are now asking once they see their roster is whether the aircraft they are commanding is a Neo. A niggling worry has crept in. They know they need to be that much more alert.

A senior Jet commander — who has been following the international story closely — told me that he thinks IndiGo needs to take a leaf out of Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker’s books (the airline has cancelled and refused to take delivery of any more Neos), ground all 29 A320 Neos currently flying and send the bill to Airbus. Maybe “scream at Airbus”, as Al Baker famously said last year.

How do we go forward? India would have to look to EASA to bring some sense into the matter as DGCA as a body is the actual “irritant” — incompetent, corrupt like the Delhi Development Authority and not worth taking into consideration. EASA may have done its risk assessment based on certain parameters but many industry experts are of the view that a more holistic risk assessment — and stringent steps based on that — is the need of the hour.

In India, of course, the sugar coating industry was in full force. Industry sources with interests of Airbus and Pratt & Whitney in mind told me that many aircraft engines have in the past faced “teething troubles” and that they take time to “mature”. But as one pilot put it to me, "Are they producing aircraft engines or teenagers?” No matter what one says, Pratt & Whitney — with its close to 50 year history of producing jet engines — doesn’t come out smelling of roses in this entire episode.

Last, the Neos are meant to be that much more fuel efficient than other aircraft but is that saving worth the headache it has given to the IndiGo management for no fault of theirs? It’s really their call.

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