Air Safety May Fade From Delhi's Radar

Despite the recent crash, reforms aren't likely to come soon

India-based management consultant Manoj Badale, who flies extensively, tries to push concerns about flight safety to the back of his mind. "It's one of those things you just genuinely try not to think about," he says. Yet Badale could not help thinking "what if?" when he heard of the midair collision of a Saudia Boeing 747 and a Kazakhstan Airlines Il-76 near New Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport. Badale felt sick as he pored over accounts of the crash and its 349 deaths. And like many other well-traveled executives in India, Badale checked to see what accidents his insurance policy covers.

The Nov. 12 collision is a grim reminder of India's struggle to handle the mounting congestion in the country's skies. Many Indian officials blame the Kazakh pilot. But aviation experts say the crash also reflected major flaws in India's air-safety system. The shortcomings include primitive equipment, demoralized air-traffic controllers, and poor regulation. "The system in India has to take part of the blame," says a senior aviation official who doesn't wish to be identified. Aviation experts figure India's safety record is worse than the global average. If that record doesn't improve, the country will find it harder to shake its reputation as a dangerous place, and some foreigners could be deterred from investing there. Says Badale: "This is just another image that India doesn't need."

CROWD CONTROL. Since New Delhi started loosening its grip over India's economy and deregulated the airline industry in 1991, the volume of air travel has soared to record levels. India had some 18.7 million domestic and international air travelers last year, compared with just 14.5 million in 1990. At New Delhi airport, traffic controllers say they guide twice as many planes in a day as they did five years ago. "People have a lot more disposable income to go on vacations by air rather than rail," says Pankaj Gupta, co-owner of a New Delhi travel agency.

What's more, harried air-traffic controllers must cope with outdated, poorly maintained equipment. And they still lack secondary radar to verify the altitudes of inbound and outbound planes--a tool some experts say might have averted the collision. Instead, air-traffic controllers rely on pilots' altitude readings, a system that leaves plenty of room for human error. At New Delhi's airport, pilots and controllers say communications equipment is unreliable, with static and other interference routinely disrupting dialogue between controllers and pilots.

Efforts to modernize have bogged down. Back in 1993, India ordered $90 million of sophisticated radar, communications, and navigational equipment from U.S.-based Raytheon Co. for the New Delhi and Bombay airports. The systems were supposed to be operating by October, 1995, but they're still not ready to go. Indian officials have called for a probe into why the American-made landing systems aren't up and running. But the inquiry is likely to highlight India's problems. Raytheon spokesman Barry French says the project was stalled mostly by "civil-works delays that were outside our control," including an erratic power supply, delays in acquiring land and building the radar tower, and trouble getting high-capacity phone lines installed at the site.

LONG HOURS. Meanwhile, air-traffic controllers are pushed to the limit, regularly working 12-hour overnight shifts to boost their meager government salaries, says A.K. Bhardwaj, general secretary of the Air Traffic Controllers Guild (India). Historic disputes with the Indian Air Force over air space have left New Delhi's airport with a single narrow corridor for both arriving and departing flights, forcing planes to pass each other at close range. "The stress and strain level is much too high," Bhardwaj says. He also complains that Indian authorities refuse to certify air-traffic controllers, despite their exhaustive training, out of fear they will leave the country in search of more lucrative jobs. "I am being treated as a bonded laborer," Bhardwaj says.

Despite the flaws highlighted by the accident, the collision is likely to be written off as an anomaly unless more crashes follow shortly, says Ian Stern, a management consultant working in India. That would be a mistake. India's dynamic economy needs a modern air-travel system to expand further. If the only positive outcome is that insurance companies sell more travel accident policies, India will have missed a golden chance to focus on an important task.

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