Fog & Meltdown: IndiGo Alone Not To Blame

Fog & Meltdown: IndiGo Alone Not To Blame

Ajay AwtaneyUpdated: Wednesday, January 17, 2024, 11:16 AM IST
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IndiGo | File

It was a familiar scene of chaos and complaints across Indian airports and social media over the weekend when extended fog reduced visibility in North India and caused schedules to be thrown in disarray across the country. However, there was only one airline that everyone seemed to complain about: IndiGo.

India is currently in a scenario where only two airline groups exist. IndiGo carries 60% of the domestic passengers, and Tata-owned airlines carry about 26%. With the disproportionate share of domestic traffic and planes, most people find themselves on an IndiGo aircraft, whether by choice or not. For an airline that is particular about On-Time Performance, it only operated 21% of its flights on time on January 14, 2024. However, what played out was not only their own fault.

Delhi Airport has two CATIIIB compliant runways. CATIIIB is a navigation system that enables aircraft to land with up to 50 metres visibility. Runway 28/10 has been shut down for maintenance. It was due to be opened for operations in December 2023, but the airport operator has postponed the reopening because work is incomplete. Owing to this, only one runway can handle landings for the time being when fog rolls in, cutting capacity by half.

The second cause is the lack of coordinated planning between the government, airports and airlines. Fog occurs every year. However, it is hard to plan for it, unlike planning for a storm or snow. So, airlines don’t cancel flights proactively. Since the same plane is used throughout the day for many flight operations, it means that if the plane gets delayed, operations throughout the day are impacted. New instructions from the regulator now have asked airlines to proactively cancel flights if they estimate a delay of over three hours, but it remains to be seen if this will be done.

Airlines must board all passengers, load their bags, and close doors to get a sequence number for departure from air traffic control. The waiting game begins then, and everyone is kept on board in the hope that they can fly away as soon as the fog lifts. If the flight loses its departure sequence, let's say because they want to top up on fuel, they go to the back of the queue.

It is also very difficult in India to offload passengers once they are on board. Boarding passes must be cancelled, and customers must be screened all over again. So, offloading passengers after boarding a plane is a nuclear option. No one prefers it.

Airlines have to juggle various nuances to make a flight work. Even when not flying, a pilot and crew are on the clock, and if they time out, they must be replaced. This is what happened on the Delhi Goa flight, where the first officer was assaulted by a passenger.

Last but not least, it is the airline's fault as well. With their no-frills model and limited facilities on their planes, it is not easy to stay for long on an IndiGo aircraft. The airline trains its staff on board for safety and transactions, skipping any interaction that might look like customer service. This works when customers get there on time. However, this model breaks when customers need information or intervention. IndiGo’s onboard staff was also unable to provide information to customers, sometimes because they themselves didn’t have a clue. In these circumstances, IndiGo needs to have a heart. One way to go about it is more communication with customers on board and more snacks on board to handle delays. An easier rebooking policy for customers affected by fog is another. At the end of the day, there is no alternative to IndiGo at the moment anyway, and it will stay this way for a while.

Ajay Awtaney writes about Indian Aviation on livefromalounge.com and tweets from @LiveFromALounge

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