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Burning Smells, Bird In Cockpit: Indian Airlines Face The Heat Over Growing List Of Safety Snags

The last couple of months has seen a string of technical malfunctions and safety across Indian domestic airlines including IndiGo, SpiceJet, and Air India.

An Indigo Airlines flight was diverted to Karachi after a technical malfunction on Sunday
An Indigo Airlines flight was diverted to Karachi after a technical malfunction on Sunday PTI (Image for representation)

On Sunday, two technical miscarriages on two separate passenger flights from India caused alarm in aviation circles as well as among passengers. 

In the first incident, IndiGo's Sharjah-Hyderabad flight was diverted to Karachi as a precaution after pilots observed a defect in one of the engines. 

In the second, Air India Express's Calicut-Dubai flight was diverted to Muscat on Saturday night after a burning smell was observed in the cabin mid-air.

Both incidents were confirmed by the DGCA and are being probed amid a rising number of reported or suspected instances of technical malfunctions leading to cancellations or delays in flight schedules. 

What happened to the IndiGo Sharjah-Hyderabad flight?

In a statement about Sunday's incident, IndiGo said its flight 6E-1406, operating from Sharjah to Hyderabad, was diverted to Karachi. 

"The pilot observed a technical defect. Necessary procedures were followed and as a precaution, the aircraft was diverted to Karachi. An additional flight is being sent to Karachi to fly the passengers to Hyderabad," it added.  According to ARY News of Pakistan, the manager of the Karachi airport on Sunday said the captain of IndiGo's Sharjah-Hyderabad flight informed the airport officials regarding a technical fault in the plane's engine. The manager added that another plane of the Indian airline would land at Karachi airport at 3 PM to airlift the passengers to Hyderabad in India.

What happened to the Air India flight?

Air India Express's Calicut-Dubai flight was diverted to Muscat after the burning smell was detected onboard. The acrid odour was coming from one of the vents in the forward galley and the pilots, therefore, diverted the plane to Muscat and landed safely, the officials said.  The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) is investigating the incident.

String of miscarriages

India is the third-largest aviation market in the world after the UK and China and is expected to grow tremendously over the next few years. The passenger traffic in the country is expected to grow at 6.2 per cent per annum by 2040. However, as the domestic sector gears up to fly again post the COVID-19 pandemic slump by adding new fleets, it faces the dual challenge of ensuring customer safety amidst the rising competition. And in this year alone, incidents of technical malfunctions and safety snags have been reported by all leading private airlines.

- Indigo is being investigated by the DGCA not just for Sunday's incident but also for a previous incident on July 14 when IndiGo's Delhi-Vadodara flight was diverted to Jaipur out of precaution as vibrations were observed in the engines of the aircraft for a second. 

- In another shocking incident that came to light on Sunday, a live bird was found in the cockpit of Air India Express' Bahrain-Kochi flight on July 15. The bird was found in the glove compartment on co-pilot's side when the plane was at 37,000 feet altitude. The plane managed to land safely in Kochi, but the incident is nevertheless being investigated by DGCA. Prima facie, it looks like there was a ground handling lapse at a foreign station.

- IndiGo's competitor SpiceJet is also under regulatory scanner right now. On July 6, the DGCA issued a show-cause notice to SpiceJet following at least eight incidents of technical malfunction in its aircraft since June 19.

- One of the incidents happened on July 5 when SpiceJet's Delhi-Dubai flight was diverted to Karachi due to a malfunctioning fuel indicator and its Kandla-Mumbai flight did priority landing in Maharashtra's capital city after cracks developed on its windshield mid-air.

- On July 5, an engine of a Vistara aircraft on way from Bangkok failed after it landed at the Delhi airport. All passengers disembarked safely. When approached for comments, the airline said the integrated drive generator (IDG) on the engine developed a "minor" electrical malfunction after it landed at the Indira Gandhi International Airport.

- On the same day, the cabin crew of an IndiGo's Raipur-Indore flight observed smoke in the plane after it landed at its destination, the DGCA officials noted. IndiGo did not respond to PTI's request for a statement on this matter.

- On July 2, a SpiceJet flight heading to Jabalpur returned to Delhi after the crew members observed smoke in the cabin at around 5,000 feet altitude.

- Fuselage door warnings lit up on two separate SpiceJet planes while taking off on June 24 and June 25, forcing them to abandon their journeys and return.

- On June 19, an engine on the carrier's Delhi-bound aircraft carrying 185 passengers caught fire soon after the take-off from Patna airport and the plane made an emergency landing minutes later. The engine malfunctioned because of a bird hit.

- In another incident on June 19, a SpiceJet flight for Jabalpur had to return to Delhi due to cabin pressurization issues.

Airlines face the heat

The rising number of reported malfunctions and safety issues are also impacting sales. According to a LocalCircles survey from earlier this year, nearly 44 percent of domestic flyers are avoiding taking a Spicejet flight and 21 percent are choosing other airlines over Air India and Indigo each due to rising safety concerns. Additionally, as many as 77 percent of flyers said that they were concerned about the safety snags when flying domestic airlines.

Taking cognisance of the increasing incidents, the Indian aviation watchdog has issued several notices and imposed fines on Indian airlines in the past few months. But a mounting number of incidents show that the notices have failed to make a mark. With the Indian aviation market taking off after the lifting of the Covid-19 restrictions, the aviation industry has been grappling with the problem of pilot shortage and incidents of flight operations by untrained pilots. 

(With inputs from PTI)

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