The financial health of the airline industry is the real cause for concern, not exaggerated safety concerns
Recent incidents of airlines developing technical issues have come under widespread public scrutiny, raising concerns about the safety of Indian carriers. The aviation industry in India has shown tremendous resilience in the face of onslaught from market forces and ever-changing passenger preferences. Many airlines have come and gone in this fiercely competitive industry, proving that complacency in this sector is not prudent, neither for the airlines nor for the regulator.
Airline safety questions must be examined through the definitive answers provided by statistics. According to International Air Traffic Association (IATA) records, there was only one accident in 9.9 lakh flights in 2021, compared to one in 6.3 lakh flights in 2020, globally.
Around the world, there has been a significant reduction in accident and fatality rates. India’s aviation safety indicators are significantly above the world average. In 2019, there were just 0.82 accidents per million flights, compared to a global average of 3.02. India’s improved performance can be noted in the fact that accidents per million flights were 2.8 in 2014.
Despite the technical problems that have arisen, the plane remains the safest means of transport.
One of the main factors responsible for aviation safety is undoubtedly the quality of human resources. Critical aspects of the training of pilots, ground staff and engineers contribute significantly to the overall health of airlines. One of the indicators that testifies to the health of airlines is the robustness of aircraft maintenance. An airline, to be truly considered safe, must have the necessary bandwidth and spare parts depot. Therefore, the regulator must strongly address the issues of shortage of spare parts due to late payment from suppliers.
In addition, the thoroughness with which the airlines record the technical delays of each of their flights, measuring how many of their planes were delayed per day for more than 15 minutes, is then reported to the regulator as well as to the manufacturer. This is a global parameter for judging aircraft performance and Indian airlines also adhere to it.
Airlines’ Minimum Equipment List (MEL) incidents have been repeatedly reported by the media as evidence of India’s failing aviation safety standards. However, simply having an MEL by an airline does not result in a compromise in safety margins. MEL categories are defined by the manufacturer and duly approved by the regulator — the Direction Générale de l’Aviation Civile (DGAC). Indian carriers are not only monitored by the DGCA but also by IATA and EASA.
Another point to discuss is incidents of windshield cracks or cracks. Whether this is as alarming a security issue as the media would have us believe needs to be critically analyzed. An aircraft windshield consists of several layers and houses a heating system. The movement of aircraft can cause certain stresses that can lead to cracks in the windshield. Aviation experts say this is a fairly common occurrence that can happen due to adverse weather conditions. The only measure that can attest to some degree whether windshield cracking is of concern is the frequency with which such cracks occur during the first 1,000 or 10,000 hours of an aircraft’s operation. Similarly, bird strikes can also occur at any time as it is not a controllable factor. What should be noted is that aircraft are designed to adapt to these common events with high engineering redundancy and endurance of operational systems.
The next question is the role of the pilot. In some cases, there may be engine failures after takeoff. However, trained pilots know that if an engine is compromised, the plane can still fly safely and land within two hours at the nearest airport. The science that has gone into making airplanes ensures that flights do not and cannot simply fall from the sky.
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However, there are still general concerns about the financial health of the sector. Around the world, aircraft on the ground (AoG) have been reported, marking reduced airline capacity. Reports pointed to the shortage of vital spare parts. In particular, in the context of the war between Ukraine and Russia, titanium, a major component of spare parts and aircraft engines, is in short supply, since 60% of it comes from Russia. Coupled with shipping disruptions and high fuel prices, this provides the perfect recipe for failing airline health. A huge redundancy of systems in each airline makes flying expensive. Fluctuations in market prices due to the incessant interaction between demand and supply lead to failing cash flows. As aviation is primarily a cash business, soaring ATF prices and high operating costs have plunged the industry into a vice grip of apprehensions. Multiple taxes further drive up costs even as competition among airlines puts immense pressure on balance sheets.
Indian airlines must be able to compete internationally and increase the size of their fleet. With smaller players like Akasa and GoAir advancing in the market and a burgeoning middle class, demand for air travel is on the rise.
With several low-cost airline operators constantly vying for a larger market share, matching the need to keep ticket prices low enough to attract customers while managing operations as well as staff salaries, sustenance airlines is a serious challenge. These airlines are constantly walking a fine line between affordable ticket prices and strong operational standards where, in the end, it is the financial health of the airlines that really matters.
The writer is a former civil aviation minister and an Airbus pilot