DC Edit | After mid-air shock, India’s aviation in need of a reboot

The civil aviation sector, with a Jyotiraditya Scindia as its ministerial head, can be rebooted to make it a flagship of the economy

After Sunday’s air shocker, when a SpiceJet-operated aircraft — a Boeing 737-800 which had on board 189 passengers — besides six staffers including two pilots and four cabin crew members — encountered severe turbulence that led to grievous injuries, India must comprehensively review its entire civil aviation industry beyond the mandatory ongoing investigation by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA).

The flight, which took off from Mumbai and was bound for Durgapur, West Bengal, met with severe turbulence, which is not a rare possibility while flying. Turbulence is a risk that comes with the turf and can be written off, but what is problematic is that, as per the initial report of the DGCA, there were too many instances of neglect in maintenance as well as slack on part of the employees.
As the plane suffered mid-air shock with dynamic G-forces acting on the craft, airspeed fell and rose dramatically, throwing the people aboard up and down, during which time, the autopilot got disengaged, leaving the skilled alert pilots no option but to manually control the flight.

After enduring the zero-gravity situation mid-air, the plane landed safely, which left two passengers with injuries serious enough to put them in the ICU. Twelve other passengers were hurt, too, besides three among the cabin crew.

Passenger videos that have gone viral show how, during the landing, malfunctioning baggage compartments fell open and the plane’s floor was seen strewn with stuff. Oxygen panels, too, opened up and masks popped out. An overhead decorative panel was found broken, some of the hand rests of seats broke off, and the food gallery was shattered and opened up.

The DGCA made its report after carrying out a mandatory regulatory inspection and ordered the de-rostering of the involved crew, two SpiceJet employees from the maintenance department, for allowing the plane to move from Durgapur to Kolkata before a formal inquiry. A detailed probe will follow. The aircraft, too, has been grounded.

While India’s aviation industry is rebounding after over two years of immense angst due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with reports indicating that nearly 84 million passengers used domestic flights last year and that over 12 million flew in the month of December, its overall functioning leaves much to be desired in terms of birthing the larger vision of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who aims to make flying an accessible mode of travel for most Indians and wishes to harness the potential for fast growth of the sector.

The civil aviation sector, with a Jyotiraditya Scindia as its ministerial head, can be rebooted to make it a flagship of the economy. The industry immediately needs a customer-complaint and service levels managing and enforcing ombudsman on lines similar to the banking, insurance or telecom sectors.

Pricing — from tickets to food to cancellation charges — while best left to the market for their regulation — needs a slight supervision in order to ensure there is no whimsical overcharging or presence of unfair trade practices. Changes in rules and processes, too, need to be communicated with passengers with special care for the old, less tech-friendly and less literate. A citizen’s audit panel can be created to comprehensively review all processes and touch points — online and offline — so that benchmarks can be set and adhered to. Penalties for airlines from failing to stick to airport service level agreements (SLAs) must be entertained quickly and disposed of fairly, and the entire process of navigating airports must be made reasonably uniform.

All this must be done, and can be done, and if done well, the Indian economy would truly reach the skies, with no mid-air shocks to suffer along the way.

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