From: Asian Age
New Delhi, May 1: Are Indian skies safe? Fast-track expansion of airlines and airports has placed a big question mark over safety of the skies as they open up to more traffic, while development of support systems, crucial for air safety, has received little attention.
On a countrywide scale, international aircraft movements have increased by nearly 63 per cent over the last five years, reaching 1,58,900 in 2004-2005 from 99,700 in 1999-2000. Domestic movements in the same period registered an increase of 64 per cent, from 4,67,720 to 7,30,020. Last year, movements at 11 international airports have registered an increase of 20.5 per cent — from 93,826 in April-January 2003-04 to 1,13,053 in 2004-05.
However, infrastructure has not caught up with this phenomenal increase in aircraft movements and aviation experts are predicting chaotic and even dangerous days ahead.
"Our skies are definitely heading for a dangerous situation. Precious little has been done to improve the support systems vital for handling such chaos. the backbone of aviation, the air traffic control management, is already inadequate to handle the existing air traffic and it simply cannot take this kind of load," a senior official said.
On paper, there is a shortage of 113 ATC officers (953 as against the sanctioned strength of 1,066), but the actual shortage, according to sources, is over 600 officers as per the existing sectorisation of airspace and the norms specified by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, of which India is a member.The immediate future does not offer any relief. While there is no indication that the infrastructure and support systems in the aviation sector are receiving urgent attention, at least 200 more aircraft are going to be added to India’s overcrowded skies within the next five years by the seven existing and six new airlines.
If this is not enough, AAI officials point out that liberal bilateral air agreements with several countries and the "open sky" policy with the United States will ensure a never-before growth rate of 16 to 20 per cent per year in India. This growth means an additional burden on two of the busiest airports in the country. By next year, Delhi airport is due to have more than 500 movements (landings and takeoffs) and more than 220 overflights, while Mumbai will register over 600 movements, with 550 overflights.
Competition has already begun for quicker landings. Intelligent airlines ask their pilots to make sure that their planes destined for Delhi or Mumbai take off only after ascertaining faster landing from the respective ATCs. An airline has to incur an additional fuel cost of Rs 7,000 per aircraft (aviation turbine fuel cost) for every extra minute it keeps its planes flying before landing.
Sources said that with the present infrastructure, the sustainable hourly traffic flow, or SHTF, as per the present ATC strength and sectorisation should not be more than 24. The civil aviation minister is keen to increase the SHTF to 35-40 by constructing rapid taxiways and a new parallel runway that is not seen as feasible by sources in the aviation sector.
"Besides making rapid exit taxiways and new parallel runways, it calls for providing modern radars, navigation systems, better very high frequency (VHF) coverage, more area control centres and further sectorisation of air space, which is not happening. God has been kind to us, but for how long? The threat of midair crashes and runway mishaps will increase," a key aviation official said, pointing out that the quick recommendations and implementation are needed from the recently-appointed Roy Paul Committee that has been given the task of ascertaining air safety at all levels.
Due to lack of area control centres, there are several gaps in the Indian skies where aircraft do not have any link with the radar and are vulnerable to mishaps. Similarly, because of shortage of VHF antennae, a lot of communication between pilots and ATC is done through the high frequency manned by a separate control office that acts as an intermediary to pass information to ATC.
"This is dangerous as wrong data interpretation can have serious implications. The midair crash at Charkhi Dadri between Kazakh and Saudi aircraft had happened because of this," says a senior AAI official.
Again, several costly instruments purchased by the AAI are not working. For example, despite the state-of-the-art Airport Surface Detection Equipment, procured from Raytheon, the ATC still has to depend on physical verification or reports from the aircraft that the runway has been vacated. The ASDE radars have not worked since these were commissioned at both Delhi and Mumbai airports in 1999.