The Indian Commercial Pilots Association (ICPA) has sent a letter to the Civil Aviation Minister citing concerns over a procedure change in Air India. Air India has changed the flight operating procedures for narrow-body A320 aircraft stating that the acceleration altitudes should be brought down. The pilots say that Air India did not follow the due procedure, while making the decision and so it is not clear how and why the move will benefit the airline. “Without any detailed study and without ensuring adequacy of power, any alteration of the certification process is a gross violation of original certification of airworthiness and serious flight safety violation,” said ICPA, the apex body of erstwhile Indian Airlines pilots.
The national carrier Air India has been in the news once again for all the wrong reasons. On May 14, 2013, on a flight from Delhi to Bengaluru with a full load of passengers onboard, the Commander of the aircraft could not re-enter the cockpit after he took a break to visit the restroom. Operation of the door for entry into the cockpit is software-controlled and the locking mechanism functions in response to a code known to those authorised to enter the cockpit. However, the locking mechanism can also be deactivated by operating a circuit breaker. Apparently, in the episode in question, none of the systems worked. Mercifully, the co-pilot, though junior to the Commander who was locked out, was also a trained Captain. He was able to carry out a diversion and land safely at Bhopal where the engineers were able to fix the snag. Although the episode had a happy ending, it had the potential of turning into a disaster if there had been another concurrent emergency onboard. The response by Air India was rather casual as if the event was inconsequential even though nearly 200 lives were at stake. Bizarre indeed!
On April 12, 2013, on an Air India Airbus 321 flying from Bangkok to Delhi with 166 passengers onboard, both the pilots had taken a 40-minute break from the cockpit supposedly for a nap and left two stewardesses in the pilots’ seats to take charge of the plane. It is understood that the two ladies were even coached on the spot by the Commander on how to fly an airliner. However, one of the stewardesses inadvertently turned off the autopilot after which the pilots returned to the cockpit to regain control of the aircraft. It would be difficult to find such a lackadaisical approach towards air safety on the part of an airline crew in any other carrier in the world.
As is routine, the management of Air India immediately went into the denial mode and stated that “the autopilot was briefly disconnected due to distraction”. The management succeeded in obfuscating the issue by ordering an investigation as if it was a trivial issue. Response from Air India that “the matter has been referred to the concerned department for comments” could not be more bland and indifferent. There is little doubt that the outcome of the investigation will never be available in the public domain. Of course, the fact that the two airhostesses were not available for attending the passengers onboard which was their primary responsibility was clearly of no consequence to the Commander or to the airline management. And the pilots were paid their emoluments for sleeping while on duty despite the rather liberal rest periods stipulated as mandatory under the latest Flight Duty Time Limitations.
More recently in July this year, two pilots of the national carrier allowed a female actor to sit inside the cockpit in the observer’s seat during a flight from Bengaluru to Hyderabad. This seat is meant to be occupied only by examiners and observers as authorised by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). As the presence of a petite young female in the cockpit could serve as a distraction for the pilots, it could well prove to be a serious hazard. For this flagrant violation of safety norms, the two pilots were taken off the roster and an investigation ordered into the episode. What is noteworthy is that action against the pilots was initiated only after a passenger lodged a formal complaint with the airline. Reaction from the DGCA was limited to just taking a serious view.
And now the management of the national carrier has issued orders revising the altitude from 1,500 to 800 feet above ground level for reduction of power on the engines after getting airborne from maximum throttle setting to climb power. This decision on the part of the management is regarded by the pilots as arbitrary and thoughtless as in their view, it has serious implications for air safety. This step has led to an embarrassing spat between the management of the airline and the Indian Commercial Pilots Association that in defiance, has issued a circular to its members not to follow the revised procedures.
The state-owned carrier run as a department of the government, is afflicted with the associated infirmities such as lack of accountability, low productivity, mediocrity, lack of discipline, dedication and a sense of responsibility amongst the employees. The malaise is so deep that there is little hope of turnaround for the airline without privatisation.