| The Air-India flight from Shanghai at IGI airport. Picture by Ramakant Kushwaha
New Delhi, April 9: Two Air-India flights today shocked their 200-odd passengers by making emergency landings in Delhi, weeks after a government report spoke of serial mechanical snags in the airline’s ageing fleet.
To complete the state-run carrier’s embarrassment, the front undercarriage of one of the planes collapsed while it was being towed away, and its nose slumped to the ground.
An airline statement said the aircraft — flying in from Shanghai via Bangkok — had “a technical snag in the locking system of the front landing gear” but did not explain why the other plane, from Dubai, made the emergency landing.
In late February, the government had admitted to a string of “incidents” involving both the national carriers — Air-India and Indian — following hydraulic failures in various aircraft systems, including landing gear.
“Hydraulic failures in Airbus A 320 flown by Indian Airlines (now renamed Indian) is a known problem area... (and) hydraulic leaks on Airbus 310 flown by Air-India is an industry phenomenon,” the civil aviation ministry report told Parliament’s consultative committee on civil aviation.
The Shanghai flight was an Airbus 310. It landed at 6.35 am and, after the 169 passengers had climbed down, fell apart spectacularly and blocked one of the two runways. The other plane, a Boeing 767, landed at 3.15 pm with 65 on board.
An aviation ministry official admitted that Air-India was weighed down under an average fleet age of almost 17 years, which posed engineering problems.
“They are being replaced,” he added, referring to the airline’s order for 68 Boeing aircraft in its biggest expansion plan.
But Dinesh Trivedi, member of the Parliamentary committee, blamed poor repairs and maintenance.
“They (Air-India) have been lax. Older planes, both Boeing and Airbus, are flying perfectly safely throughout the world,” the MP said.
“The spares are often bought from sources other than manufacturers. There is often a shortage of competent engineers.”
Trivedi said he was shocked when the ministry report cited a hydraulic failure caused by the failure of a plane’s brake system line at Jeddah, which he termed “not (just) dangerous but extremely so. Today’s case seems to be suspiciously similar.”
The report identified 10 “problem areas” that are often struck by hydraulic failures. These include the hydraulic pressure switch, pitch trimmer supply hose, actuator, hydraulic seals, thrust reversor actuators, nose-wheel steering hoses and the rudder supply hose.
About Airbus A 310 planes, the ministry said, “Additional inspections and modifications have been introduced. Airbus has suggested new installation procedures, which are proposed to be introduced.”
The report said some of the problems had been sorted out, but a “few areas still need improvements which have been taken up with the manufacturer/vendor”.
Trivedi said, “We cannot wait for fatalities before we act. Someone will have to explain to the paying public what is being done to make these aircraft safe.”
In Delhi, AI349 was still blocking the runway though Air-India had flown in heavy-lift equipment to remove it.
“The aircraft was descending and we could see the runway when suddenly it took off. The pilot announced there was a problem in opening the landing gear and everybody panicked,” said passenger Mukesh Jadav. “The plane hovered over the airport for more than an hour.”
The morning mishap had thrown air traffic out of gear for about six-and-a-half hours till 1.15 pm. “About 8-10 flights got delayed in the morning… but not more than by 40 minutes,” an airport official said.
Airport spokesperson Arun Arora said some 1,000 metres of the runway had been cordoned off and the remaining 2,800 metres “freed for flights”. This is considered sufficient for flights to take off or land.
The director-general of civil aviation would order an inquiry, ministry officials said.