Sunday’s fiasco at the Delhi airport, and its cascading effects across the country, reminded me of a similar event nearly two decades ago. On February 14, 2007, the American JetBlue airline suffered a similar meltdown at its JFK New York hub due to an ice-storm.
Just like Delhi, scores of passengers were left stranded onboard aircraft, on the tarmac and at airports across the country, and the airline managed to depart a little over 10% of its flights scheduled that day.
Rightfully so, passengers are asking “Who is to blame?” Simply put, it’s the entire system. However, this whole mess rests on a few root causes.
First is the lack of transparency. Everyone in the aviation ecosystem—from the travel agent to the airline to the airport to Digiyatra—wants to “own” passenger data. This silo approach ensures that the system does not work in the cohesive manner an aviation ecosystem must.
This lack of transparent data sharing aggravates the next root cause—inane procedures, rules, and regulations that belong in the last century.
Capping this off, is the absence of a clear and cohesive policy formulation and execution by aviation authorities who should oversee that ground and air infrastructure is shipshape. Also sorely lacking are effective passenger protection laws along the lines of EU261 of the European Union.
Let me explain.
Less than 10% of passengers book their tickets directly with the airline. The rest use travel sites and agents. By an overwhelming majority the site or agent will not share the passenger contact data with the airline. Delay information is communicated via SMS on the number in the reservation. I urge the affected flyers to check their contact information as printed on their tickets.
Similarly, airlines don’t want to share passenger information with the airport. A senior airline official shocked me when he told me that there is no one responsible or liable for our data protection at the DigiYatra foundation. This, at an organisation promoted by the government.
Also read: 300 cancelled flights, 40,000 fewer passengers: The true extent of the airport havoc in numbers
The government should mandate that all bookings must provide the passenger’s Aadhaar number. Automatically, all the information will flow through the channels in a transparent and secure manner.
Delhi is one of the largest airports in the world, and hub to almost all Indian carriers. Any disruption at this mega-hub, results in nation-wide disruptions. Despite years of experience with fog the airport had only one runway operational. Knowing the perils of winter fog, why have the regulatory and airport authorities not acted in advance, to ensure that the airport is prepared? After all, we passengers are being billed in the form of UDF for all that infrastructure.
Strange airport procedures
Many of our security and other procedures simply defy logic. A few examples.
Just as a passenger is not permitted to leave the airport terminal once they enter, if airlines deboard passengers from the plane, they cannot be just taken back to the departure lounge and re-boarded. New boarding passes must be printed, and passengers must go through security checks all over again.
Any passenger who transits through a hub must undergo security checks all over again. For example, Amritsar to Bangalore, connecting via Delhi.
These outdated procedures must go.
All these outdated procedures force the airlines and airports to resort to bypass tactics just to keep the wheels rolling.
On virtually every ticket, we see a CUTE charge on our tickets. A charge levied by airports to provide airlines Common User Terminals (shared terminals) instead of the old dedicated system. Unfortunately, at most Indian airports, the common terminal is limited to the check-in area.
Global security procedures call for baggage reconciliation so that no baggage will fly without its passenger on board. This is to prevent another Kanishka or Pan Am type bombing. Unlike foreign airports, most Indian airports don’t have gate-side printers which makes airlines resort to manual check-in of oversized or excess carry-on bags, many of our entitled fellow passengers like to carry. This just collapses the computerised baggage reconciliation systems airlines and airports use, necessitating the illogical security rules in place.
Similarly, ATC, requires an aircraft to be fully ready before asking for departure clearance. So, airlines board passengers and coop them up, so that they are ready as soon as there is a break in the weather.
On Sunday, where the runway capacity is about 70 arrivals AND departures, over 150 pilots requested for departure clearance all at the same time when they were allowed. Should they not practice the same patience they advocate to us?
Naturally, the system got overwhelmed. Can the ATC not follow a system of allotting a time slot to each flight with a specific time which will allow airlines to plan the boarding and preparation smoothly? If a particular flight misses their slot, they go right back to the end of the queue.
Also read: What led to assault on IndiGo pilot in Delhi-Goa flight? Co-passenger shares first-hand account
Passenger (lack of) rights
Lest you think I am letting the airlines off easy; I am not. The reason they act the way they do, is because they are allowed to. On the website of the Ministry of Civil Aviation you will find a document titled “Passenger Charter of Rights”.
Unfortunately, this Charter is a facade even worse than the famed “Hawa Mahal”. A cursory reading of this document reveals that airlines are granted every possible exemption, including delays due to ATC “congestion” i.e. a traffic jam. Try telling an airline you reached the airport late due to a traffic jam.
This flimsy Charter gets even worse. In the few cases where there are requirements of airlines like timely intimation, or payment of compensation, there is no specified method of action, or time frame within which it must be done, nor is there any penalty if the required action isn’t taken.
Is it little wonder the airlines behave the way they do. They know the government is not with the passenger, whose memory, in any case, is too short. Who remembers the major fog we had just about two weeks ago? What promises were made at the time? Both to us, and by us.
Passengers too to blame
Lastly, we must get off our entitled high horse, and display both understanding and patience. Unlike a storm which is quite predictable, fog cannot be accurately forecasted both in commencement and duration. A Bollywood celebrity asked on TV “Why are” Bangalore to Mumbai” flights delayed if the weather here is clear?”
Great observation sir: but the aircraft has to come from Delhi which is fogged in, and needs to be flown by alert pilots who are not tired by being on duty beyond their flight duty time limit.
A few days after their 2007 meltdown, the then-CEO of JetBlue, David Neeleman announced a “Customer Bill of Rights” which including specific metrics in terms of delays, time a passenger is kept on board an aircraft, on the ground, amounts of compensation etc.
Can we expect a similar response from the airlines in India? While you finish laughing, I put to you, the voice of the people is the media.
I desperately urge them to use this incident and lead a rally for change. Keep questioning the powers that are, remind them of their duty to the passengers, the economy, and to the citizenry.
The government must lead a determined focus to correct the entire system. No more half-hearted measures, no more knee-jerk weak statements. Create a fool proof, exemption-proof passenger charter along the lines of EU261, the European Union passenger rights regulation, which truly protects the rights of passengers.
Draw a “Lakshman Dhara” in the sand, and require, by law, airlines, airports, and all other stakeholders to be responsible. Any stakeholder who violates it, gets hit by such high levels of financial penalties, that they will dare not cross it.
And please remember to book directly with airlines and share your correct contact information. Vote with your wallet. Show non-caring airlines, you too don’t care for them. Take your business elsewhere. You might spend a few rupees more, but surely your self-respect is worth it.
Devesh Agarwal, a Lockheed Martin Innovation Medal winner, is Chief Analyst at BangaloreAviation.com and is a Past President of The Bangalore Chamber of Industry and Commerce. He is a frequent flier having clocked over 4 million miles. He can be reached on X @BLRAviation.