Friday, March 24, 2006


I found that a lot of people ask generic questions on aviation and some of them are quite common. One of the most common question that I get is “is it true that landing the airplane is the most difficult and dangerous part of flying?” there are questions like “how do you know where you are when you are flying since there are no roads and signboards in the sky?” and “if the engine fails, will the airplane fall to the ground?”

One of the common misconceptions is that ATC (Air Traffic Control) or control tower as they are called commonly by laypersons, are actually controlling the Aircraft and if communication fails with the ATC, the airplane is in jeopardy.

There are other misconceptions that propeller driven airplanes shake a lot and hence are riskier to fly and so on, the list is endless. Oh, here's another common question asked "What is an air pocket? Why does the airplane suddenly shake so much, is there a chance that the airplane can crash?"

What I am attempting to do in this blog is to let the reader ask the question. I encourage all my readers to ask questions, without fear and without feeling that the question asked may be perceived to be silly (by the questioner). I assure you all that no question will be considered in any way but positively and I will make all attempts to answer those questions that are in your minds. Even if you want to know the answers to some of the questions that I have mentioned above, please write and I will gladly clarify.

Monday, March 20, 2006


This blog is the result of Mr. Vijendra Rao’s questions and comments on my previous article titled “Air Mess” coinciding with today’s NDTV “Exclusive” report on Air India pilots suffering from fatigue.

Today, the 20th of March 2006 morning news edition of NDTV, and perhaps the report would be repeated all day, is an NDTV “Exclusive” about Pilot Fatigue issues at Air India. Again, the report is anchored by Vishnu Som (also mentioned by Mr. Rao in his reply comment on my “Air Mess” blog).

The report suggests that Air India pilots, especially those flying the overseas North American sector such as London-New York, are a fatigued lot. The pilots are reportedly so tired and “slightly sleepy”. (A term used by the news reader and not Vishnu Som as an introduction to the “Exclusive” and by the way, I have never heard this term before) Can anyone tell me what it means to be slightly sleepy and how long can a person remain in that state? Silly me, I thought people are either awake or asleep or maybe nodding off.

The report then shows a person, reported to be the pilot on a Boeing 747 making a statement (with his face hidden and voice distorted to hide his identity) that pilots have trouble keeping awake after 9 hours of flying. Vishnu Som also goes on to mention that the Air India flight to New York terminates at 4 PM and the same crew has to report to fly back the next day at 7:30 PM and Vishnu says there is a rest gap “barely” 24 hours. It does not take a rocket scientist to do the math and realize that the gap is actually more than 24 hours.

OK now we come to the “pilot” shown in the report. The normal viewer can see a uniformed guy sitting there and may assume that this is the guy that is the pilot in command of the airplane, but another pilot viewing this program, such as yours truly, can see that the uniformed chap has only three stripes on his shirt as opposed to four stripes for a Captain who is the Aircraft commander. The three stripes tells me that he is co-pilot. He is the chap that helps the commander fly the airplane (although most of the trip the airplane is on autopilot!) and has the least work load. It is not like he is lifting weights for 9 hours to be fatigued. Oh, perhaps the First Officer (Co-pilot) is speaking on behalf of a captain who does not want to say anything or maybe NDTV could not catch hold of the Captain or they thought that all viewers would be fooled by mentioning the chap as the “pilot” who flies the airplane and no one would have noticed the number of stripes on his shirt epaulets!

Pilot fatigue is a dangerous issue and this issue has been addressed by the Civil Aviation Authorities around the World by making the pilot workload less. Air India has the same standard that is followed by any major Airline in the World. What the report does not mention is that most pilots actually fly less than 100 hours every month (at a very high point and because of the restrictions due to the rules) and Air India pilots perhaps average half that – in a whole month! That means that the pilots fly for only a fraction of the time every month and get plenty of rest much like my cats do (my cats don’t fly, they only rest!). They do this for a princely salary compared to any other profession around.

According to the FDTL rules (Flight Duty Time Limitations), these guys get plenty of rest time and the issue is to find out whether violations of this rule is taking place at Air India or not. NDTV report also gives the Air India side of the story saying that no violations of the FDTL rules are taking place and the report does not accuse the Airline of a violation either. So, what is the point of this alarmist, sensationalized report? Is this a belated response to CNN-IBN’s report “Fear in the Sky”? Or that they have nothing better to report?

Anybody’s guess on this one!

Monday, March 06, 2006


Airport Mess:

I am sure most readers are somewhat familiar with the problems that they face at Airports in India. The long queues at check in counters, inadequate lighting, inadequate and poor quality seating, badly maintained and sometimes non-functional toilets, bad quality PA system that one can’t make out the announcements, generally unclean, inadequate choice of eating places and of course high tariffs (this is an Airport after all!), inadequate boarding gates and cramped and sometimes overloaded boarding busses and many more problems.

Tarmac Mess:

What most flying passengers don’t normally see, but do sometimes, is the chaos on the tarmac. The tarmac is the area on the Airport where the Aircraft comes in to park and disembark arriving passengers and embark departing ones. This is the area where most of the ground operations take place including loading/unloading checked in baggage, line maintenance of the Aircraft by the Airline engineers, re-fuelling and of course loading and unloading passengers. This is also the area where the maximum numbers of Airline employees are moving around. As mentioned above, these people are the engineers, technicians, loaders, flight dispatch officers, ground facilities personnel mostly. Most Indian Airports including the big ones at Mumbai and New Delhi are not equipped to handle the volume of traffic that has been operating into these Airports since recent times.

ATC Mess:

With the present number of operators apparently eight new operators in India coming in this year, all operating out of the limited number of “operational” Airports in India will lead to further chaos. Another area that passengers don’t get to see is the antiquated Air Traffic Control system. Most ATC’s as they are called rely on antiquated radar systems and some of them, including Mumbai (Scary isn’t it?) have very poor primary radio.

In layman’s terms, the primary and secondary surveillance radars (SSR) are the best ways to see Aircraft flying around and know their exact positions, their altitude (the height at which they are flying) and their air speed. All this comes up on the SSR. Horrific news is that most airports including Bangalore don’t have such facilities! In other words, ATC’s sometimes have an idea as to where you are and sometimes don’t. As for communication, your truly was flying an F-27 twin turboprop on a ferry flight to Bangalore from Muscat and even at close range flying over Mumbai, we could not communicate with them. Another Airline was “relaying messages” back and forth and nearly all Airlines were doing the same.

CNN-IBN did an expose’ on their channel about this problem but in some cases I found the reporting to be a bit alarmist. However, sometimes I think we need alarmist reports in the media for people in this Country to wake up and smell the coffee. At least now it seems the Government is trying to improve facilities but to me this seems like “too little, too late” and not fast enough. Unless the improvements are done on a war footing, things are only going to get worse. The other area for expanding facilities is by building new Airports around the country. This is a huge country where Air Services is vital but largely ignored in terms of development.

We need lot’s more Airports to cover all of the regions. The Government should not look at immediate returns but invest on creating infrastructure for the future. If they can’t do it, the private sector must be allowed to come in and invest like it has been done in Cochin.

Airlines Mess:

As for the Airlines, they have more problems and these don’t always mean the lack of facilities at the various Airports. They have this too and other problems facing them and the situation are getting no better. Some of their problems include skyrocketing fuel prices, inadequate supply of trained technical, managerial and pilots, the last being acute and getting worse. Not to mention that lease rates for Aircraft have gone up tremendously, only because of the increased demand for Aircraft by growing countries such as India.

To Clear the Mess:

What needs to be done to solve the problems facing this Industry and the people who use it? It is not that there isn’t enough money, because there is enough and more as a result of all the taxes and accruals coming out of this Industry. What we need is just this: A will to make things happen. A will to improve things and a resolve to make this Country a leading player in the World of Aviation.

Do we have such a will? It’s a Million Dollar (or should I say Rupee) question and one that cannot be answered easily what with a coalition Government at the centre and a party that I attribute to being the only survivor of the Dinosaur era, being a part of the ruling coalition, albeit from the “outside”. This party is well known for it's position on modernization of Airports (or anything else for that matter) and also known for saying that air travel is for the rich man and hence no investment must be made for their convenience!

We, the People need a kick in the backside for electing a non progressive bunch of persons who want to take India back to the Ice age and some of them who get elected on caste lines to ascend the steps of the Parliament and making a mockery of our democracy.