The story so far: The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) on Wednesday served a show-cause notice on SpiceJet following at least eight mid-air incidents and an accident since May. In its notice, the aviation safety regulator has blamed these occurrences on "poor internal safety oversight" as well as the airline's failure to maintain its planes due to its weak financial health. The airline has three weeks to respond.
In its notice the DGCA has said that the airline has failed to establish "safe, efficient and reliable air services". It says that its review of incidents reported by SpiceJet since April showed that on several occasions the airline was forced to either cut short its journey and turn back its aircraft and land at the airport of origin, or continue to its destination with "degraded safety margins". It has blamed "poor internal safety oversight" and "inadequate maintenance actions" for the fall in safety standards. In its harshest observation, the regulator has said that a financial assessment undertaken by it in September 2021 revealed that the airline witnessed shortage in supply of spare parts because of its failure to pay vendors on time, most of whom were conducting business with the airline on "cash and carry" basis. Cash and carry requires upfront payments as suppliers don't want to extend credit because of the airline's failure to clear dues on time.
The Aircraft (Investigation of Accidents and Incidents) Rules, 2017 categorise occurrences into "accidents", "serious incidents" and "incidents". An accident is one where a passenger is fatally or seriously injured, or when the aircraft sustains structural damage or if the aircraft is missing or inaccessible. However, not all kinds of physical damage to the aircraft are considered accidents such as when only one of the two engines fail, damage to propellers, wingtips, antennas, probes, vanes, tires, brakes, wheels, panels, landing gear doors, wind screens, the aircraft skin or minor damages to main rotor blades, tail rotor blades, landing gear, and those resulting from hail or bird strike.
A “serious incident” means an occurrence where there is a high probability of an accident and an "incident" is one which could affect the safety of flight operations.
A senior DGCA official said, “on an average there are about 30 incidents that take place daily, which include go around, missed approaches, diversion, medical emergencies, weather, bird hits, runway incursion or excursion and ATC-driven occurrences. Most of them have no safety implications.”
Since May, SpiceJet saw incidents of cracked windshield, an engine shut down and an engine failure, smoke in cabin, a bird strike, a pressurisation snag and a glitch in the weather radar. It also saw an accident, when the airline's Boeing 737-800 flew into turbulence resulting in injuries to several passengers including two who were admitted to an ICU due to head and spine injuries.
A crack on the inner windshield can lead to pressurisation failure, which can then result in a drop in oxygen levels and cause hypoxia among passengers. Smoke inside passenger cabin is also serious according to the rules, and a glitch in the weather radar forced the pilot of a SpiceJet freighter to return to the airport shortly after take off on July 5. A bird strike though is not an airline's fault.
Aviation Safety Consultant Mohan Ranganathan says "often airlines don't report incidents, and also try to cover up accidents as incidents because the insurance premium they pay on aircraft goes up after an accident."
There is a need for greater scrutiny also because of the airline’s financial status, which the DGCA has said is impacting the airline’s safety standards. The airline reported a consolidated net loss of ₹1,259.21 crore for the nine-month period ended December 31, 2021 and is yet to declare its results for the full financial year 2022.
Many including Captain Ranganathan also blame the organisational culture where pilots are forced to fly despite defects being unresolved and rules given a go-by. For instance, a DGCA surprise check at a training centre in March revealed that SpiceJet was training its pilots on a simulator despite a faulty stick shaker which warns a pilot if there is an imminent fall. The training was part of the return to service of the infamous Boeing 737 MAX planes which were grounded across the world after two aircrashes. The DGCA barred 90 of SpiceJet's pilots from flying the MAXs until they were retrained.
The Aircraft Rules 1937 empower the DGCA to impose a fine of ₹1 crore, detain any aircraft if it can lead to danger to persons in the aircraft or to any other persons or property. The regulator can also suspend the airline's air operator's certificate (AOC) which is a pre-requisite for offering commercial air services in the country or curtail the airline's schedule, i.e. flights. But the DGCA is also under scrutiny. "The regulator carried out a financial audit only six months back and found glaring lapses. Why did it not act then? The show-cause notice makes a mockery of the whole process," said Captain Ranganathan.
"There were signals from the DGCA's audits of Kingfisher in 2012 and Jet Airways in 2018 about the two airline's poor financial health, but the failure of the DGCA to act in both the cases resulted in hundreds of passengers losing their money, employees rendered jobless when the two airlines closed down soon after," he adds.