Tuesday, April 10, 2007
Flying from Mumbai to Delhi? Take the train instead
Fears in India’s fast-growing aviation market
For those who fly to save time or to escape the carnage on the roads – India boasts just 1 per cent of the world’s vehicles but about 10 per cent of annual road fatalities – it has been a sobering week.
On Monday, in separate incidents, two ageing Air India aircraft, a Boeing 767 and an Airbus 310, were forced to make emergency landings at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport after suffering problems with their arthritic landing gear. No passengers were hurt but many were scared witless.
Moreover, images of one of the aircraft with its nose planted into the ground have not only dented the national flag carrier’s reputation ahead of an expected initial public offering but also raised worrying questions about safety standards in the world’s fastest-growing aviation market. “As long as Air India continues to operate this fleet of obsolete aircraft, such incidents will be common. It is not at all good for its image,” says Kapil Kaul of the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (Capa), a consultancy.
The close shaves have highlighted a delicate transition under way at the airline and within the aviation sector as a whole. Like Indian, the domestic carrier with which it is on the point of merging, Air India is awaiting the arrival of dozens of new aircraft that it hopes will reverse years of under-investment and precipitous declines in market share.
Within three to five years, with orders placed for 111 new aircraft, the combined entity should be able to boast one of the most modern fleets in the world. In the meantime, however, it is stuck with one of the creakiest.
A similar race against time is under way at Indian airports that are buckling under the pressure of the spectacular growth in flights and passenger numbers. In the 12 months to March 31 2006, Indian airlines carried 25.5m domestic passengers (up 27.9 per cent year-on-year) and 22.4m international passengers (up 15.1 per cent). Between April and September 2006, however, amid a flurry of new entrants to the sector, domestic traffic growth accelerated to more than 45 per cent. Capa predicts that domestic traffic will grow at 25 per cent to 30 per cent a year until 2010 and international traffic growth by 15 per cent, taking the overall market to more than 100m passengers by the end of the decade. Indian carriers have 480 aircraft on order for delivery by 2012, which compares with a fleet size of 310 aircraft operating in the country today.
Congestion in the Indian skies, as poor ground infrastructure forces aircraft to circle for lengthy periods of time above major cities, has led to a surge in the number of near misses, or “airproxes” as they are known. Indian newspapers reported last month that these had jumped to an average of more than two a month during 2006 – with a total of 26 incidents, up from 21 in 2005. The pattern is continuing this year. On March 8, an Indian Airlines and a Korean Air aircraft reportedly came close to collision over Nagpur but were saved by a cockpit warning system. A chronic shortage of trained pilots is leading to communications problems between the cockpit and air traffic controllers: India’s Directorate General for Civil Aviation last month sent home 20 foreign pilots who spoke only halting English.
“The Indian air traffic control system is outmoded and lacks the sophistication of its western counterparts,” Aviation Today noted in a recent commentary. The government’s airport modernisation plan, which proposes a $9bn investment by 2010, should help improve matters. In January 2006, joint venture companies with 74 per cent private sector participation won contracts to upgrade New Delhi and Mumbai airports. Stage one completion is scheduled for 2009-10.
The overhaul of Chennai and Kolkata, along with 35 smaller airports, should start soon. Foreign airlines remain shut out, however, and the process continues to lack a sense of urgency. As a number of Air India passengers said in forceful terms after their close shaves on Monday, real progress cannot be delayed a moment longer.
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