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CAT out of cockpit
- Why some take off in fog and others don’t

New Delhi, Jan. 7: If you missed a business trip or had your holiday cut short any time during the past three weeks because of airport fog, blame it largely on your airline.

Delhi airport’s Category III B instrument landing system allows planes to land even when visibility falls to 50 metres, but domestic airlines are far short of equipping all their planes or training all their pilots to work the system.

National carrier Indian (formerly Indian Airlines) has done the most, having turned 54 of its aircraft Category III-enabled and trained 300 of its 696 pilots (43 per cent) in the system.

The results showed during the seven fog-ravaged days between December 13 and January 3, when it cancelled only six flights while the total for Delhi airport was 161 inward and outward flights cancelled and 120 diverted.

The problem, though, isn’t just about Category III. Airport officials say that on most foggy winter mornings, visibility stays above 400 metres — so even if the pilots and planes were Category II compliant, things wouldn’t be so bad.

Category II allows landing at a visibility of 350 metres, but many airlines have failed to train all their pilots or equip all their planes for even this system.

Civil aviation ministry figures show that Jet Airways, which cancelled 22 flights in the same period, has 203 Category II-trained pilots (27 per cent) and 33 foreign pilots who are Category III compliant (4.4 per cent) on its roster of 750 pilots.

Sahara, which cancelled 19, has 50 Category II or III compliant pilots (20 per cent) while of Air Deccan’s 399 pilots, 93 are trained in Category II or III (23 per cent).

Kingfisher has 13 trained in Category III while IndiGo has 12, of whom nine are foreigners.

Jet said it planned to train all its pilots in Category III but admitted “this will be in phases” and did not spell out a timetable.

Sahara plans “to have all our 250 pilots trained in Category III standards by next winter”, said spokesperson Neeta Raina.

But even Indian will not be able to train all its pilots in Category III in the near future. “We are working at it and by next year, will have about 400 Category III-trained pilots,” said Vishwapati Trivedi, the airline’s chairman-cum-managing director.

Training pilots in Category III costs about Rs 8 lakh per head – peanuts by airline standards. But it also means the pilot must be taken off the roster for weeks, which is certain to hamstring the airline’s operations.

Besides, not any pilot can be trained in Category II or III. He or she must have flown at least 2,000 hours -- of this, 500 hours in certain types of high-technology aircraft – and done a minimum number of take-offs and landings.

Being small can help – as low-cost carrier SpiceJet has shown.

“All our 70 pilots and all our 10 aircraft are Category II compliant,” said Jagdish Dhillon, vice-president, flight operations. This means the airline can land or take off on most foggy mornings in Delhi except the worst days.

But even if all the promises of training pilots and retrofitting aircraft are carried out, flights will probably still be delayed on foggy mornings, thanks to airport congestion.

“This is the main problem in Delhi…. The skies are congested with too many flights and there are just two runways, often just one,” said U.K. Bose, former Air Sahara chief executive.

“Most flights are delayed by 15 minutes to half an hour even when you have Category III landings. Pilots are not allowed to taxi up to their bays but must wait for tractors to tow them in as visibility is low and they could hit a vehicle or another aircraft while taxiing on the runway. This means delays of up to half an hour…. No aircraft can take off or land on the runway where the first aircraft has landed. It all builds up.”

Analysts say it is unfair to blame only airlines. The airports, too, must expand and alternative centres must be developed.

Civil aviation ministry officials say there are plans to add a new runway at Delhi airport and develop nearby airports like Agra and Jaipur into alternative landing points if visibility is too low in Delhi.

“There could be airport-to-airport transfers taking advantage of the high-speed expressways that have come up,” an official said.

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