Indian carriers IndiGo and GoAir cancelled a total of 65 flights till Tuesday evening after the Indian civil aviation regulator Monday directed these airlines to immediately ground 11 aircraft fitted with Pratt & Whitney’s PW1100 engines, which had been reported to be the cause of in-flight shutdowns and aborted take-offs. The move sent passengers and airlines into a tizzy, resulting in travel fares rising by over 10% on several sectors, and tickets on the Mumbai-Delhi route flaring up to Rs 12,000 from their usual band of Rs 8,000-9,000 for late bookings. “With current load factors at over 90%, this reduction in capacity is likely to have a 5-10% impact on fares on key routes in the short to medium term,” said Sharat Dhall, COO (B2C) at travel portal Yatra.com. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) on Tuesday evening clarified that of the total A320neo aircraft in the fleets of IndiGo (32 planes) and GoAir (13), a total of only 14 were using the engines with the defects, and that with the grounding of all such aircraft there was no cause for worry on account of safety for passengers.
Even as the DGCA seems to have taken its decision to ground aircraft following trouble with a flight taking off from Ahmedabad on Monday, the European Aviation Safety Agency or EASA questioned the Indian regulator’s need to take such a step. Bloomberg quoted EASA as saying, “Grounding of affected A320neo not deemed necessary for the time being,” adding that “grounding of the IndiGo and GoAir A320neo with one PW1100 engine is a unilateral decision from the India regulator”. EASA is the agency that issued the emergency airworthiness directive for this particular engine type that made the Indian regulator ground the first three aircraft with both engines on an aircraft fitted with the 450 series.
BS Bhullar, director general of civil aviation, told FE that of the eight IndiGo aircraft that were grounded on Monday, eight engines are all right to fly and can be technically used by the airline for salvaging four of its aircraft. “It is technically feasible for the airline to do this and they can salvage at least four aircraft by this exercise till they get new engines,” Bhullar said. Bhullar added that how long the airlines take to normalise their flight schedules after the impact is their operational matter. On the possibility of leasing aircraft — both dry and wet — for these airlines, Bhullar said if they desire to do so, the process for it will be very quick. Industry sources say that IndiGo, which has been affected more significantly, is looking to lease aircraft in the interim on dry lease.
As airlines grapple with the aircraft availability issue, the decision of Indian regulator to ground all aircraft with P&W1100 engines is being seen by some industry insiders as not one without some motivation. They point to a rivalry between GE-Safran (which makes the CFM engines) and P&W, and that Airbus has also pointed to issues with the CFM engines. The CFM engines on the Airbus A320 type of aircraft are being used by airlines in India like Tata Sons-promoted Vistara and AirAsia India. Bhullar had earlier said that there was no case to ground the entire neo fleet in India. “No (there is no such plan),” news agency PTI quoted him as saying in February. But on Tuesday he defended his decision. Bhullar said that there were reasons as explained by him in the press communication on Monday (recent three incidents of in-flight shutdown) as these were aircraft safety issues.
On EASA questioning the move, he said, “Once we have taken a decision, we have taken a decision (based on assessment of risk perception) and we have not discussed this with EASA. And even if EASA got in touch with us over this issue, usually the discussions are something we will not like to talk about.” Meanwhile, travel schedules of thousands of passengers were thrown out of gear. Both the affected airlines tried to accommodate passengers on their network flights as they rescheduled operations. Both IndiGo and GoAir will now have to submit revised flight schedules with curtailed aircraft numbers for operations to the civil aviation regulator.
“Passengers are facing lot of inconvenience. There is no capacity for other airlines to accommodate them as they are already running full. A clearer picture about the impact on fares would emerge in the next two-three days,” said Jyoti Mayal, general secretary, Travel Agents Association of India.
By Manisha Singhal & Arun Nayal