As I turned back to understand the reason for some commotion at the airport, I found a few flyers confronting the two ground duty staff, manning the boarding gate. The display screen at the gate continued to show the same ETD for a Mumbai – Bangalore flight, though it was well past that time and there were no signs of the incoming aircraft yet. I too was supposed to take the same flight and could see many flyers getting impatient as it was already 2 hours past the scheduled boarding time. And that meant the flight would reach Bangalore well past midnight.
While the phenomenon of delayed flights was nothing new, it was the lack of correct information that caused more anxiety to the flyers. I have been witness to the chaos at Mumbai airport, on those heavy rainy days of September, when not only the flights were abnormally delayed but were also cancelled. On those occasions, despite all the inconvenience, the flyers never took their ire on the ground staff. But here was a situation where they did not see any weather related constraints – neither in Mumbai nor in Udaipur, where the flight was supposed to have originated from.
It was indeed sheer apathy on part of the airline. On their part, they said that the aircraft had reached Mumbai and was hovering around the city for almost one hour, waiting for clearance to land. And then something stuck me. I had read a newspaper report a couple of days ago that the Mumbai airport had set a new record of air traffic – managing 980 flights in a span of 24 hours. Improving efficiency is good but not at the risk of paying a heavy price. This is not a typical corporate world where if you don’t meet your stretch goal, it just costs you a certain variable pay component or at the most an elevation. Here the precious lives are at risk and hence these records are required to be seen from a different perspective. Passenger safety is the key and there cannot be a trade-off on that.
Coming back to the incident, I have faced a situation when I boarded the flight but the pushback happened after 2 hours. The pilot had informed well in advance that we were in the queue behind other 37 aircrafts. There was a very heavy fog earlier in the morning and the airport was shut down for about 2 hours. The cascading delay, therefore, was explainable and the flyers could appreciate the situation. In the current scenario, however, there were no explicable reasons. The weather was perfect across the country all through the day. And hence the backlash.
The challenge of celebrating record breaking numbers is that they become the new baseline. The air traffic control is then expected to handle those numbers in the normal circumstances. The new schedules are drawn without considering breathing spaces. The crunched schedules are expected to work with precision – barring the weather induced disruptions as exceptions.
The job of an air traffic controller is a high pressure job. My worry is that when I fly next time, I am not sure if my aircraft is guided by an overworked controller. Or when my flight gets delayed next time, I am not sure if it is a genuine delay or a mess up of the controllers’ duty roster that had not considered a lower than full attendance. Or, if my pilot has just been asked to do a short merry-go-round the city just because an overworked controller had to take an urgent, long-suppressed bio-break.