Aviation industry has been the worst affected globally due to COVID19. In a statement released by To70 an aviation research & advisory form, while there were 40 aircraft accidents globally as compared to 86 accidents in the year 2019, the number of fatalities were higher in 2020 at 299 as compared to 257 fatalities in 2019. The International aircraft movements and Domestic aircraft movements in India have witnessed a 67.2% decrease in total aircraft movements during (April-November) 2020 as compared to (April-November)2019. This is as per data released by the Airport Authority of India. During the period April-Dec 2020, one accident and 360 air safety incidents have been reported. This is almost a 150% surge in the number of incidents as compared to previous years data. Data sourced from answers given in the parliament reveal an average 55 incidents per month during the period 2013-2019 with an average increase per year of approx.5%. The COVID19 period recorded an average of 40 incidents per month in 2020 despite a 67% reduction in the number of departures during 2020.
While incidents may range from minor to a few serious ones, they are also precursors to accidents and reflect the prevailing safety culture in the country. A proactive approach to determine the root cause(s) of incidents is the mitigating action that is used by countries which are committed to establishing a generative safety culture . The Pareto principle states that for many outcomes roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes (the “vital few”). Other names for this principle are the 80/20 rule, the law of the vital few, or the principle of factor sparsity. Using the Pareto principle, if an in-depth analysis is carried out into the causative factor(s) of incidents and the top 20% factors causing the incidents are addressed in the true sense, they will prevent the remaining 80% of incidents/accidents fro occurring.
The year 2020 witnessed some close shaves to becoming major catastrophes. There have been four stick shaker warning incidents. The “stick–shaker” warning is a device that causes the flight’s control column in the cockpit to shake noisily and warn the pilot of an imminent stall which is the leading cause of global aircraft accidents. According to Boeing it takes a physical, rather than visual, form so crew members will be alerted even if they are not looking at the panel at the time. A Boeing 777 from New York to Mumbai, Boeing-737 Hong Kong to Kolkata another one on final approach at Leh and an ATR Jharsuguda to Kolkata experienced this event.
The B-777 reported turbulence soon after takeoff and a stick shaker warning momentarily, a B-737 during approach at Leh, experienced low speed warning along with stick shaker. Another B-737 enroute to Kolkata experienced severe cloud activity while struggling with an intermittent weather radar and a traffic alert system.
In another serious incident a Boeing 737 landed on the wrong runway at Hyderabad during day and clear weather. The air traffic controller was warned by the jeep on the runway where work had completed and clearing process was in progress when the aircraft approaching the runway was sighted. The aircraft was cleared to land on the parallel runway on the left of the runway that they landed on but for reasons which the investigation could not determine, the pilot landed on the wrong runway, the air traffic controller could not warn the pilot of the error despite being aware it and more importantly, the aircraft was allowed to proceed on further flight without the cockpit voice recorded downloaded as a result vital data was lost since the CVR audio recording is over written after two hours elapsed time.
Other incidents like reject take off, hydraulic leaks, unreliable speed indication, using incorrect taxiways are a few of other human factor and technical causes of the incidents that were witnessed in 2020.
It is important that pilots and airlines take extra precautions when launching crew and aircraft after a period of break. Pilots will witness a loss in procedural memory and they will be a tad slow in getting back to speed with recall of procedures which may not come intuitively. Other operators and regulators for example in the U.K. have used online procedural trainers to help keep the pilots cognitively active during this period of slumber. The engineers too must ensure that the manufacturer recommended procedures are strictly adhered to when storing aircrafts and recalling them for service. There are issues with respect to blockages in the speed sensing system, fuel and hydraulics systems of the aircraft.
The most important aspect of safety is defined in the principles of high reliability organisations (HRO). The HRO are driven by data and during a period of low activity or less incidents, they go on an overdrive to look for cues for the next possible incident which could be prevented. It is therefore important that the Indian regulator and investigators upgrade their skills to produce more meaningful reports as compared to the current standard of reports which hide more than they reveal. While the aim of any investigation is not to apportion blame nor can the report be used legally, the investigators still shy away from revealing the truth. Does it reflect on their capability or intention is a matter of debate and discussion.