Lessons from Neo fiasco: As drama played out, cracks and crevices emerged

On March 12, an IndiGo A320 Neo flight from Ahmedabad to Lucknow witnessed a mid-air engine failure. The pilot chose to return to Ahmedabad and an emergency was declared. This was the third mid-air engine failure in a short time but for some reason the March 12 incident triggered more panic across the board. Alarm bells rang a trifle louder — perhaps at the instance of the pilot or the air traffic control — than the previous incidents. Within hours, the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) announced the grounding of 11 more Neo aircraft — eight of IndiGo and three of Go Air — with malfunctioning Pratt & Whitney engines.

 

This was the second round of grounding this year, resulting in a total of 14 aircraft on the ground. Post the grounding, there were several questions up in the air. Should the DGCA have acted earlier? Why did it wait for the third incident to take action? Is India’s safety regulator equipped to do what is required of it? Would EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allow the aircraft to continue to fly if they are not certain that they were as safe as any other aircraft operating? Would IndiGo and Go Air take such a risk if they actually thought there was any danger?

 

Public interest activists quickly jumped in and two PILs were filed and heard in Mumbai and Delhi high courts, arguing that the DGCA should certify the safety of the whole fleet of A320 Neos currently flying in India or else ground them all. In other words, the PILs are seeking grounding of another 43 aircraft.

 

There are to my mind a few lessons to be kept in mind from the recent episode that I think are worth mentioning. The media abetted by social media does more of a disservice in the kind of information and reporting — be it television, digital or print — it presents in these situations. A kind of panic is created without a full or even partial understanding of the facts.

 

But in this case the players are equally to blame. Gathering authentic information on what is happening takes a herculean effort as I have realised in these few weeks. Even to write these columns, I have had to chase all manner of officials and executives. If one wants to know how many faulty engines are in operation globally or in India, you must ask Pratt & Whitney. If you want to know how many aircraft are currently flying or grounded in India, you must ask individual airlines. If you want to know anything else, ask the DGCA. Only the most dogged reporter will eventually uncover the facts. The PR machinery and agencies involved — barring a few exceptions — seem more concerned with concealing facts than revealing them. Pratt & Whitney, for instance, issued several bland statements that didn’t help clear the air much. Airbus followed suit.

 

Intense rivalry among airlines makes matters worse. Conspiracy theories abound on who is really behind this fiasco and now the PILs, why the DGCA and the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MOCA) at different points acted the way they did, how Suresh Prabhu’s taking charge impacted the situation, how SpiceJet and Vistara are gloating — so many theories that one can be distracted completely from the real issue at hand —which to my mind is only one: The safety of passengers.

 

In this particular case, I can’t help but feel a bit sorry for the DGCA — although I don’t usually have much sympathy for the organisation and what it stands for. The DGCA found itself in a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” scenario. Post the grounding, can anyone certify with a 100 per cent guarantee that all Neo aircraft currently in air are totally safe? I don’t know if you can do that with any machine operated by a human who is fallible.

 

Moreover, have we as a country really equipped the DGCA to do this kind of examination independently? Does it have a choice but to look at external agencies like the EASA and FAA for directives? The fault for not having a more capable and credible safety regulator lies not with the regulator but with those who empower it.

 

From the business point of view, the grounding of the aircraft of IndiGo and Go Air is not as bad as it appears. We are in lean airline season and they will be compensated financially. Of course cancellations and haywire schedules are a headache for all but that’s a small price to pay. Public memory is shorter than we realise.

 

Have we then reached the final scene of this drama? Your guess is as good as mine.



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