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THERE WERE 35 near-miss incidents from March 2015 to March 2016, involving aircraft belonging to major airlines and the IAF, according to statistics submitted by Union Minister of State for Civil Aviation Mahesh Sharma in Lok Sabha last month.
According to the official figures examined by The Indian Express, of the 35 incidents, at least 11 were reported in Delhi airspace, eight in Chennai, seven in Mumbai and four in Varanasi.
The statistics handbook of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) for 2014-15 recorded 11 “serious incidents” in the previous cycle, although a senior official told The Indian Express that “not all near-miss incidents could be classified as serious”.
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Records show the aircraft involved in these 35 incidents belonged to major industry players and the IAF: Air India, Jet Airways, IndiGo Airlines, SpiceJet, British Airways, Emirates, Etihad Airways, Oman Air, Go Air, Saudia, Vistara, Sri Lankan Airlines, Qatar Airways, Japan Airlines.
When contacted, airline representatives said their crew was not at fault while aviation experts said these instances occurred mainly due to infrastructure problems.
“In most of our cases our flight crew have not caused any “Level Bust” or violated any ATC instructions (except one). In the case of latter, both flight crew were kept off the flying duties and were sent for remedial training,” IndiGo said in a emailed response.
An Etihad Airways spokesperson stated in an emailed response that “official investigations into these incidents revealed that Etihad Airways crew were not at fault and at no point was the safety of the aircraft, passengers or crew compromised”.
SpiceJet and British Airways, too, said that in incidents their planes were involved in, their crew were not at fault.
“There was no such incident/s been reported where SpiceJet cockpit crew had committed any manoeuvre leading to (a) near-miss situation,” said a SpiceJet spokesperson.
“Our highly trained pilots were given instructions by Indian air traffic control to alter course as another aircraft had climbed above its authorised flight level to about 1,300 feet below them. These instructions were followed correctly at all times,” said a British Airways spokesperson.
The other carriers did not respond to emails seeking comment.
According to a pilot from one of the airlines on the list, a near-miss can happen because of “unclear instructions by ATC or the pilot’s inability to follow instructions at that particular moment”.
For instance, records show that in an incident over Delhi on March 3, 2015, landing clearance given to one aircraft was captured by another aircraft which proceeded to land, resulting in a near-miss, according to the documents presented to Lok Sabha by the minister.
Another instance in Chennai airspace on August 11, 2015, saw a near-miss owing to confusion over “handover” from one regional ATC to another.
The senior DGCA official, who did not wish to be named, said that the regulatory body was trying “our best to reduce the number of near-miss incidents”.
“Most of the incidents reported last year happened because of problems in adjacent airspace controlled by IAF and others so our ATCs were not at fault. The DGCA is taking a lot of corrective steps,” said the official.
Aviation experts said the solution lay in upgrading technology and training.
“Most of these incidents occur due to congestion in airspace. At any given time, there are at least 300 aircraft ready to take off. At peak hour, on an average, at least 150 aircraft call the ATC tower for landing. In such circumstances, such incidents is unavoidable,” said Mark Martin, CEO at Martin Consulting LLC, an aviation consultancy.
Martin and Capt Mohan Ranganathan, an aviation safety consultant, say that the number of near-misses could be under-reported, too, since airlines and ATC officers fear it may damage their reputation. The crew is also typically grounded while investigations are on.
“The extent of under-reporting is such that if the official data says there have been 35 incidents of near-miss in a year then the actual incidents could be three times more than the official data,” said Ranganathan.
According to the DGCA’s handbook, there were 8.97 lakh scheduled aircraft movement in 2014-15, up 6.6 per cent from the previous year. Scheduled aircraft typically refers to regular flights (unlike, say charter and private jets) and aircraft movement refers to the total number of take-offs and landings.
The Airports Authority of India (AAI) did not respond to an emailed questionnaire sent by The Indian Express.
In 2014, PriceWaterhouse- Coopers released a report in which the consultancy predicted that India will emerge as the third-largest aviation market in the world by 2020.
Other countries have a more detailed reporting system.
The UK Airprox Board releases a report annually. In 2014, for instance, there were 224 such incidents which were logged, of which 43 per cent or 96 incidents, were categorised as incidents where there was a “risk of collision” or “safety (was) not assured”.
“There is a serious shortage of air traffic controllers for the last ten years. As a result, a lot of trainees are entrusted with the job of ATC. Most of the ATC officers are under stress at airports which have high density operations and in such circumstances are bound to make mistakes,” said Ranganathan.
Last December, the civil aviation minister had informed Parliament that there were only 2,296 working ATC officers compared to sanctioned strength of 3,890.
“Lowering such incidents lies on balance of investment in technology and training of the crew and the ATC officers. Currently, we need traffic flow management systems throughout Indian airspace and advanced radar surveillance,” said Martin.