The financial health of the aviation sector is the real concern, not exaggerated safety concerns
Recent incidents of airlines developing technical glitches have been widely scrutinized by the public, raising concerns about the safety of Indian airlines. The airline industry in India has shown tremendous resilience to withstand the onslaught of market forces and ever-changing passenger preferences. Many airlines have come and gone in this highly competitive industry, proving that complacency in this sector is unwise for either the airlines or the regulator.
Airline safety questions must be viewed through the definitive answers that statistics provide. According to International Air Traffic Association (IATA) records, there was just one accident for every 9.9 lakh flights in 2021 compared to one for every 6.3 lakh flights in 2020 worldwide.
There has been a significant decline in the number of accidents and fatalities worldwide. India’s flight safety indicators are well above the global average. In 2019 there were just 0.82 accidents per million flights compared to the world average of 3.02. India’s improvement in performance can be seen in the fact that the number of accidents per million flights was 2.8 in 2014.
Despite the technical problems that have arisen, flying remains the safest mode of transport.
One of the main factors affecting flight safety is undoubtedly the quality of human resources. The critical facets of pilot, ground crew and engineer training contribute significantly to the holistic health of airlines. One of the indicators that speaks to the health of airlines is the robustness of aircraft maintenance. To be truly considered safe, an airline must have the necessary bandwidth and a spare parts inventory. Therefore, the regulator must strongly address issues related to the shortage of spare parts due to late payments to suppliers.
In addition, the meticulousness with which airlines track the technical delays of each of their flights, measuring how many of their planes were delayed more than 15 minutes per day, is then reported to both the regulator and the manufacturer. This is a worldwide parameter to judge aircraft performance and Indian airlines also adhere to it.
The incidents on the airlines’ Minimum Equipment List (MEL) have been repeatedly cited by the media as evidence of fluctuating safety standards in Indian aviation. However, the mere presence of an MEL by an airline does not compromise safety margins. The categories of MELs are determined by the manufacturer and duly approved by the regulatory body – the Directorate General for Civil Aviation (DGCA). Indian airlines are overseen not only by the DGCA, but also by IATA and EASA.
Another point to discuss is the incidents of cracks or cracks in the windshield. Whether this is as alarming a security issue as the media would have us believe requires critical analysis. 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 that this is a fairly common event that can occur due to adverse weather conditions. The only metric that can reasonably confirm whether windshield cracking is a concern is the frequency with which such cracks occur within the first 1,000 or 10,000 hours of an aircraft’s service. Likewise, bird strikes can happen at any time as this is not a controllable factor. What is important to note is that aircraft are designed to handle these everyday occurrences with high levels of technical and long-term operating system redundancy.
The next topic is the role of the pilot. In some cases, engine failures may occur after takeoff. However, trained pilots know that if one engine is damaged, the plane can still fly safely and land at the nearest airport within two hours. The science that has gone into aircraft construction ensures planes don’t just fall out of the air and can.
However, general concerns about the financial health of the sector remain. Airplanes on the ground (AoG) have been reported around the world, marking airlines’ reduced capacity. Reports have revealed shortages of vital spare parts. Especially against the backdrop of the war between Ukraine and Russia, titanium, a key component of aircraft spare parts and engines, is in short supply as 60 percent of it comes from Russia. Coupled with ship disruptions and high fuel prices, this is the perfect recipe for airline ailing health. A huge redundancy of systems in every airline makes flights expensive. Fluctuations in market prices due to the constant interplay between demand and supply lead to stagnant cash flows. With aviation being predominantly a cash business, skyrocketing ATF prices and high operating costs have put the industry in a stranglehold of fear. Multiple taxes continue to drive up costs, even as competition between airlines puts immense pressure on balance sheets.
Airlines in India need to be able to compete internationally and increase their fleet size. With smaller players like Akasa and GoAir entering the market and a growing middle class, the demand for air transportation is increasing.
With multiple low-cost airlines constantly vying for greater market share and needing to keep ticket prices low enough to attract customers while managing operations and staff salaries, airline upkeep faces a major challenge. These airlines are constantly walking the fine line between affordable ticket prices and solid operating standards, where ultimately the financial health of the airlines is what matters.
The author is a former Minister for Civil Aviation and an Airbus pilot