Why just the fog? A breakdown can happen suddenly, anywhere, not just in India but at any airport globally. Emergencies are of this nature only. It was that time of the year when Delhi, the capital city, is besieged with fog. It is an every-year occurrence, nothing unusual. While reports and analysis suggest a complete breakdown of services alongside uncalled for misery on the hapless fliers, as an aftermath, the government is said to be considering new guidelines. The Minister has called for setting up a war room, a need of the hour at all airports.
Like airlines must have intime information on incoming flights, share actual position with regard to expected departure times, etc. Also, inordinate delays cannot be carried on endlessly; flights that are more than three hours delayed must get cancelled. These are some most welcome steps, but there is another and perhaps a deeper malaise that these events point out towards – inherent weaknesses in the system, absence of basic Operational Procedures when they are most needed, even more critical in times of distress. An airline may be prepared, an airport may be prepared, but the system is not! No wonder, the minister called for a War Room at the airport, nothing less. Perhaps an outlier call, but well put in such a situation. If only it was anticipated better, none of this would have happened.
This was not any unexpected catastrophe, like it was the regular fog over Delhi that besets the IGIA ecosystem every year. That SOPs did not exist or failed in such a regular, annual occurrence points to another deeper malaise – inexperience and total lack of coordination between different agencies.
And that begs another critical question? Are we growing faster than our capability? Are we adequately prepared for this much anticipated and heralded aviation boom? It is all very good to be the fastest growing aviation market in the world but what about corresponding ability to handle this boom? On top of this is the arrogance and conceit that goes with this expected growth; are these companies beyond reproach, they can do no wrong and are the new Demi gods? Have they too attained the status, much like our cricketing stars?
There are other problems, too. I have seen Air India from up close over many decades. Many of my senior friends would be called for airport duty, in such situations in advance, on regular call duty, to lead, supervise and give confidence. Such seniors have now left, availed of VRS and other schemes, or simply superannuated. You have a new team, less experienced overall. Other airlines, have no such supporting experience either. It is usually a young team, relatively inexperienced.
Before I wander more, here is a recap of what happened on a particular flight on that fateful day: 14th January, 2024!
Terminal 3. Flight AI 885
Original scheduled departure 10.30 am
Changed departure timing after being advised on SMS 13.50 …
Flyer arrives at airport, checked in …not informed that flight is further delayed …
Boarding card shows 17.50 boarding…17.55 departure.
Display at the airport shows 13.50.
On reaching the gate, told flight is further delayed …awaiting arrival of Pune flight at 6.10 …
Fresh scheduled departure is now 18.50.
Crew arrives at 6pm at Gate 27 where the flight is supposed to leave.
But the crew leaves for gate 41….. this is where the incoming aircraft has been parked.
Here, there is No commercial staff.
Pilot arrives around 7.30 but the crew is waiting elsewhere.
It is the Passengers who run and call the Crew.
Commercial staff arrive only much later and boarding starts past 8 pm.
All are boarded now, thankfully, but now the captain announces the flight needs fuelling (was this an after-thought).
Final take off around 9pm or so with arrival in Goa at 11.15.
(Mind you, once checked in, there is no option to opt out; you can neither leave the airport. The passenger is captive to the airline, the airport and the security. In between you were offered a snack at an outlet where the queue had a few hundred lined up)
My information is that a similar situation existed at terminal 2, where Indigo flights are exclusive. The delay was some 6 hours for similar flights to Goa. Presumably, this delay applied across the system, with similar such harassment. That points out to a very scary experience to say the least. All because of fog, of which so much is routine, you only have to scan newspapers of previous years around the same time.
The government must do an honest audit of situation, experience and response and coordinate the entire ecosystem, create transparent guidelines that prescribe rules and responsibilities on every stakeholder. For instance, that real time flight details must be prominently displayed at every gate. If that information is available, then why not display it at the boarding gate as well, or else it remains blank, or only shows the flight number of the next flight from that gate. This would eliminate any human error or lack of communication.
Secondly, it is not about CEOs meeting and sharing their flight plans. That is at the top end. It is more important that ground level coordination becomes a regular feature at every airport around the country.
My last point! All over the airport, it is displayed prominently that passengers must respect staff on duty and behave, or they can be prosecuted. Nowhere does any announcement say that staff on duty is doing their best but what if fliers find the staff rude, we have recourse to go to, like a helpline. And, much too often, they do behave most rudely and discouragingly! And this includes the immigration staff, just as much.
All this mayhem can lead to some good and important measures on the ground. It would then all be for a good cause, if only effective measures can be undertaken by all concerned. And more importantly, it is not during fog alone, but in every conceivable emergency, not just at IGIA but at any airport in the country.
This incident and all that occurred around it, is possibly already forgotten. Important that it should not be, and it is critical that we build around it, not in criticism but in confidence building for our entire air transport system.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Navin Berry, Editor, Destination India, over five decades has edited publications like CityScan, India Debates and Travel Trends Today. He is the founder of SATTE, India’s first inbound tourism mart, biggest in Asia.