On air safety, remain vigilant

A SpiceJet flight from Delhi to Madurai was delayed this week after the nose wheel of the aircraft malfunctioned and it was temporarily grounded, said the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). This marks the 10th such incident reported in flights operated by the airline since May 1, including a cracked windshield, oil filter warning, cabin pressure snags, smoke in the cabin, fuel indicator fault, and weather gauge malfunction. The raft of glitches earned the airline a show-cause notice from the aviation regulator last week, though DGCA has moved to reassure flyers that Indian skies are safe and robustly monitored.

The aviation regulator is right in pointing out that a number of such incidents — to be sure, other airlines also reported one each last week — don’t have major safety implications. But such incidents are concerning because the margins of error are extremely slim, especially in an airline where the DGCA has already found (in its review) poor internal safety oversight and inadequate maintenance. A financial assessment carried out in September 2021 found that SpiceJet was operating on a cash-and-carry model – which indicates financial stress, leading to the withdrawal of credit facilities – where suppliers and vendors were not being paid regularly, causing a shortage of spares. With the aviation sector climbing back to pre-pandemic levels, and soaring fuel prices and operational costs, the pressure on airlines to cut costs will only increase in the months to come. Hence, it is good news that India’s aviation regulator is stepping up its oversight, via new steps such as surprise checks.

India has always had a robust model of air safety monitoring and regulation, and barring in the 2010s, when the country’s air safety oversight mechanism was downgraded by the United States Federal Aviation Authority, Indian skies have remained among the safest in the world. This has been done through a rigorous process of training, plugging loopholes that allowed airlines to not declare accidents to the regulator, upgrading rules and filling vacancies. With new entrants set to enter the skies and Air India under a new owner about to expand its services, competition in the already tough sector is only bound to increase, putting even more pressure on the bottom line. It will, therefore, become even more important to constantly monitor the skies, keep the focus on stressed airlines, and ensure that piling debts don’t lead to safety gaps. The regulator will need to remain nimble and vigilant.

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