Indian air scares

Pilots faked fuel crisis to cut queue

Regulator's report comes amid aviation boom that's straining airport capabilities

NEW DELHI • Pilots of at least three Indian flights, including one operated by market leader IndiGo, lied to air traffic controllers about being short on fuel to get priority landing at an airport, according to an investigation by the country's aviation safety regulator.

On Nov 30, pilots of an IndiGo plane told air traffic controllers at Kolkata airport that the jet was running out of fuel and it should be allowed to land, bypassing more than half a dozen aircraft waiting in queue.

An Air India aircraft, ahead of IndiGo, claimed the same after listening to the conversation, while another plane, operated by SpiceJet, also followed suit, the investigation showed.

None of the aircraft ran the risk of an empty tank, and all of them had enough jet fuel to fly to an alternative airport and attempt at least two landings, or to circle around Kolkata for half an hour, an official at the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) told reporters in New Delhi, asking not to be identified.

Airport congestion is increasingly becoming a serious issue in India - the fastest-growing major aviation market in the world - as carriers struggle to maintain their on-time performance, a key selling point to low-cost customers.

The average time an aircraft spends circling before it can land in Mumbai during peak hours is about 45 minutes to an hour, versus 25 minutes for Singapore and zero for Qatar, according to Dubai-based Martin Consulting.

None of the aircraft ran the risk of an empty tank, and all of them had enough jet fuel to fly to an alternative airport and attempt at least two landings, or to circle around Kolkata for half an hour.

The pilots of the three aircraft were being "naughty," and posed a serious threat to preparations when an actual incident of fuel shortage occurs, the official said.

The IndiGo aircraft was carrying Ms Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal state, whose political party raised the issue in Parliament, saying her life was threatened.

The pilots of all three flights have been suspended.

SpiceJet denied the regulator's charges and said its pilots did not seek priority landing or claim that the aircraft was low on fuel.

IndiGo, operated by InterGlobe Aviation, declined to comment while Air India did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment. Two calls to Mr Derek O'Brien, spokesman for Ms Banerjee's Trinamool Congress Party, went unanswered.

The DGCA has been cracking down on safety violations by airlines in recent months, including a slew of offences such as aircraft getting too close to each other, overworked staff and inebriated pilots and crew.

The US Federal Aviation Administration downgraded India's aviation safety rating in 2014 before restoring it a year later following some corrective measures.

Passenger traffic in India is growing at double the pace of its nearest rival China amid a travel boom fanned by low-cost carriers, according to the International Air Transport Association.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 10, 2016, with the headline 'Pilots faked fuel crisis to cut queue'. Print Edition | Subscribe