India air crashes likely to prompt fresh look at an overburdened transport system

In what is being described as the worst day in India's domestic aviation history, at least 164 people were killed yesterday in two separate airplane crashes. The first crash occurred in the early morning, when an Indian Airlines Boeing 737 flight from Bombay to the western Indian city of Ahmedabad was unable to land, allegedly on account of bad weather conditions. At press time, Indian Airlines officials in the capital, New Delhi, had not yet determined the exact cause. But they confirmed that at least 130 people, including several foreign tourists, were killed, while four survivors were rescued.

Barely an hour later, traffic control in northeast Assam State lost contact with a Fokker Friendship plane, belonging to the smaller domestic airline Vayudoot. The aircraft had crashed, killing all 34 passengers and crew. Bad weather is again believed responsible.

Explanations of weather and poor visibility, however, will likely meet public skepticism. In recent weeks, both state-owned domestic airlines have been under fire for bad management, poor maintenance, and delays up to 48 hours. Increased news media and public scrutiny after the crashes could prompt a fresh look at airline operations.

High-level Indian Airlines sources here, who did not wish to be identified, told the Monitor that at the root of their problems was a severe shortage of aircraft. This means that the airline's 27 boeing 737's (now 26) are being over-utilized as much as 3,000 hours a year. The aircraft spend so little time on the ground that maintenance is often hampered.

Indian Airlines, which is the main domestic carrier, flies 28,000 passengers a day with a total of 47 aircraft. This results in 90 percent flight occupancy. There is little possibility of expansion, since the government does not allowing airlines to grow at more than 8 percent a year, because air travel is considered a luxury item by India's socialistic standards.

Getting a seat on an Indian Airlines flight is virtually impossible unless booked several days or weeks in advance. Even then there is no guarantee of getting on since the airline has become notorious for off-loading passengers with confirmed reservations. India Today, a respected news weekly, in a recent article calculated that, in the past few months, nearly half of the flights were delayed or canceled.

The magazine quoted the airline chairman, Rahul Bajaj, as saying: ``Without competition we cannot improve. The airline has almost no power to reward and punish.''

Since domestic air travel is a government monopoly and government jobs are considered permanent, negligence is not always considered grounds for sacking. Some pilots have been known to ``forget'' to lower the undercarriage before landing, and it is fairly common for planes to run into stray cattle on runways.

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