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Flight of fear

 | January 6, 2012

Why must an airline so short on funds to take care of safety be allowed to fly even for a day?


A couple of years ago, I was invited to a swanky party thrown by Vijay Mallya in his palatial garden bungalow on an island off Cannes during the film festival there. Mallya, often called “Liquor Baron” (for he owns United Breweries and now Kingfisher Airlines as well), owned the bungalow, I was told. This was reportedly a sort of quid pro quo for his company buying French aeroplanes. Otherwise, foreigners cannot usually own property in France.

I was reminded of Mallya’s opulent lifestyle when I read a magazine story on his private A 319 aircraft that cost him Rs 250 crores. He spent an additional Rs 75 crores on the interiors that he did up the way he wanted to.

Nothing presumably wrong with either of these. He is rich enough to pamper himself with such luxuries.

But what saddened and angered me, and to no end, was another article which I read yesterday morning. The Chennai edition of The Times of India carried a four-column lead piece on page one that screamed: “Kingfisher safety an issue: DGCA (Director General of Civil Aviation)”.

The DGCA chief, Bharat Bhushan, who finalised a financial surveillance report on Dec 28, said it was unsafe for the cash-strapped privately –owned Kingfisher Airlines to fly and should be wound up.

Now, this is a very serious issue which puts at grave risk the lives of hundreds of people who fly Kingfisher every day.

Bhushan’s report also suggests Air India Express be shut down for reasons of safety.

The audit of the almost bankrupt government carrier, Air India, is still on. Probably, a whole lot of skeletons will tumble out.

The DGCA has also questioned the safety of other private airlines, such as Jet Airways, JetLite, Spice Jet and Go Air, and said it was worried about the way IndiGo was growing.

The DGCA will offer suggestions to Kingfisher and Air India Express to improve their financial health and, thereby, safety. Both the airlines will be allowed to fly without compromising on passenger safety.

If they fail to do this, their licences could be cancelled.

Rapid rise and fall

I am sceptical about this: Is it possible to set right things in a jiffy? And how are the airlines concerned going to implement safety measures when they have no money?

India’s aviation history has been full of blemishes, and though the country has seen major accidents and huge loss of life, they have been infrequent. Attribute this to luck or, more likely, excellent piloting.

India, all said and done, has a brigade of great pilots, which, despite its few rotten apples, overworked and technologically handicapped air-traffic controllers, some bad runways and some outdated airport equipment, has worked with dedication and sincerity.

I am sure many pilots will tell you in private conversations how their own skills have helped them avert major mishaps.

Certainly, but for these men in the flight-desk, India’s air safety could have gone for a nasty toss.

However, what annoys me is that men like Mallya, Naresh Goel (owner of Jet Airways) and a few others are so driven by profit that they have begun to care less and less for human life.

Do they need to do this?

Also, the growth of private airlines in India has often been too rapid, too chaotic. A case in point was East West Airlines, one of the country’s first major private players that grew too quickly and died too quickly.

I remember the horror stories a pilot friend of mine working for East West used to tell me. Frankly, they frightened me out of my wits.

Well, it is admirable that Bhushan has been bold enough to expose what he did in his report. But, this is not enough. No, not all.

Why must an airline so short on funds to take care of safety be allowed to fly even for a day? And, if they are allowed to do so, passengers must boycott them. People’s protest can be extremely effective.

It is about time Indians got real, rather than remain fatalistic.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai-India based author, columnist and film critic, and can be contacted at [email protected]. He is an FMT columnist.


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