Ground Reality at Airports

Indian passengers may now have an unprecedented choice of flights at all price levels, but this growth in traffic has only put them at a greater risk than ever before. Airports, built decades ago, designed to handle a lower traffic of flights daily are now witnessing movement of a much larger number of aircraft and support vehicles of airlines. A space crunch, coupled with ill-trained drivers and people working in apron area, has led to a sharp rise in tarmac-side mishaps.

This problem could get much worse in coming foggy days at airports of north India, due to poor visibility on the airside. "The basic issue is that there are far too many vehicles and people on airside. Essentially, tarmac management has two aspects - movement of vehicles, and aircraft in operational areas. Indian airports don't have dedicated aircraft and vehicle movement areas, and thanks to the overlap, there are frequent mishaps involving the two," said a national airline official.

Only some airlines, like the state-owned ones, have trained drivers as permanent employees who spend a lifetime driving in airports. On the other hand, most other carriers have such a high turnover of drivers that retaining trained ones is very difficult.

As a result, high speed driving - when speed limit is 15 kmph - by poorly trained drivers in vehicles, yet to be equipped with speed governors, has become a big problem. Last year, a speeding Sahara bus hit an Indian Airlines bus carrying Kingfisher passengers and eight people were injured. This problem takes a grave turn whenever speeding vehicles kill people, as has happened recently in Delhi twice.

Apart from vehicles, the presence of a large number of people associated with different agencies like airlines, security and airport has aggravated the problem of congestion in airside. "Last month, my aircraft was taxiing for take off when I saw one or two persons running across the taxiway. I had to screech to a halt and reported the matter to the airport. This problem is very common in Delhi and little less in Mumbai. It is mandatory, but not everyone working on airside wears a fluorescent jacket," said a pilot with a private airline.

Design flaws in old airports are now becoming glaring. For instance, the 1A terminal used by Kingfisher and Indian Airlines (now Air India) is very close to the operational area. Aircraft heading from domestic airport side to main runway from Jumbo Point side have to be very careful in piloting this course.

"Earlier, with less traffic, the 'dhaba on highway' kind of runway-terminal design was okay. Now handling more aircraft and simultaneous movement of more vehicles in such a limited space is becoming a recipe for disaster," said an airline official.

The space crunch and overall indiscipline in airside is proving to be dangerous for anyone required to be there, like passengers, and an expensive affair for airlines. "Each time that baggage trolleys break free from tractors, or step ladders or vehicles hit planes, they have to be grounded for varying periods and necessitate repairs costing crores," said an official.

For instance, the Air Deccan ATR that was hit by a Jet vehicle at Chennai on Monday will not fly for at least six months, said Deccan spokeswoman Vijaya Menon. While new airports will get ready only in coming years, authorities have to ensure a safe airside till that happens.

Speaking about new rules at IGI that also apply to other crowded airports, aviation minister Praful Patel told Parliament on Thursday: "All vehicles on airside have to be equipped with speed limitation devices. The number of vehicles there has to be a bare minimum. Two wheelers and pedestrian movement on airside is banned. People working there must wear safety jackets."