Foggy excuse for delayed flights

Pushpa Girimaji

It’s the same story every winter. As fog descends on airfields in the northern parts of India, causing large-scale disruption in air services and hardship to passengers, airlines plead their helplessness.

It’s not as if airlines are taken by surprise by the fog. This is a phenomenon that they face every year. Yet, there is complete lack of preparedness to deal with the situation. And that is what is most infuriating, as far as passengers are concerned. Take the Delhi airport, for example. For the last several years, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has been saying that the airport has been fitted with category III instrument landing system that allows aircraft to land even at a visibility range of 50 metres. However, in order to use this facility, the aircraft must have the necessary instruments and, more important, the pilot should be trained to use it.  

Now given the fact that the airlines have to fly in poor visibility in northern parts of the country for at least three months of the year (December, January and February), one would expect the regulator, the DGCA, to make this a pre-requisite for granting licences to airlines to fly. Instead, more and more airlines are being allowed to operate in the Indian skies without such a conditionality. 

A regulator’s job is to protect the interests of consumers. Obviously, in the civil aviation sector, this has not been the priority. Or else airlines that did not have adequately trained pilots would have been grounded much before the fog descended on the capital city of Delhi.  

Airlines are now quoting figures on how the number of pilots trained to operate CAT III and II has increased this year, compared to last year. That is no consolation to passengers. What they want is to fly safely and on time during the winter months. Whatever it takes to make this happen must be done, be it the training of pilots or upgradation of aircraft instruments or, for that matter, provision of state-of-the-art landing instruments at all airports that are enveloped by fog in winter months. So every pilot in every airline should be trained to take off and land in poor visibility of 50 metres. Or else the airline’s operations should be suspended in winter.

If the DGCA fails to enforce this, it should take responsibility along with the airlines for the deficient service. I don’t see why passengers should take this kind of shoddy service and suffer any longer. In fact they must now haul up not just the airlines but also the regulator and the Civil Aviation Ministry for the mess at the airports and demand heavy punitive damages.

In fact soon after the Consumer Protection Act came into being, at least two passengers filed cases against Indian Airlines for the harassment caused to them on account of delayed flights. Those were the early days of consumer protection law and somehow the consumers did not get the kind of response that they should have got form the consumer court. In fact, the court made references to delays caused by a sudden strike, bird hit or even fog, which it said may be considered as factors “beyond the control of the airlines”, meaning that they cannot be held liable for such delays. (Indian Airlines vs Rajesh Kumar Upadhyay and Station Manager, Indian Airlines vs BB Das)

If a consumer were to file a similar complaint today, I am sure the consumer courts will not take such a lenient view towards the air service operators. In fact in an age where communication and navigational  facilities are highly advanced, it is ridiculous to describe delays caused by fog  as ‘circumstances beyond the control of the airline or the airport authorities’. Since safety and efficiency are essential pre-requisites of any transportation system, the service provider is expected to take all necessary steps to overcome problems posed by inclement weather. Failure to do so would be negligence and consumers are entitled to damages against negligent acts.

Airlines have had more than adequate time to prepare for foggy weather. In fact last winter, the civil aviation authorities had warned the private airlines to train their pilots to operate in poor visibility conditions. If they have not done so then they are not fit to be in this business.

In fact the excuses that airlines give for their inefficiencies reminds me of the arguments that small-scale industrialists used some years ago against mandatory standardisation of their products. Finally, they had to be told that if they were not willing to ensure the safety of the electrical products that they were manufacturing, they could not continue to produce those goods.   A similar message has to go to the airline industry too.