(This was first published on 12 July 2022. It has been republished from The Quint's archives after Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) ordered SpiceJet to fly only 50 percent of flights for eight weeks.)
On 2 July, passengers aboard a Delhi-Jabalpur SpiceJet flight witnessed smoke in its cabin. On 5 July, another SpiceJet flight reported a cracked windshield mid-air, forcing it to make a priority landing in Mumbai.
On the same day, one other flight from the same airline – the Delhi-Dubai one – was diverted to Karachi; while a China-bound freighter plane, also SpiceJet, was forced to come back to Kolkata after its weather radar malfunctioned.
These snags are a part of at least 13 incidents reported over a 10-month period.
Interestingly, eight out of the 13 incidents reported in the last 10 months have involved the widely controversial Boeing 737 Max and Boeing 737 planes.
So, is there any cause for alarm? The Quint reached out to experts to understand what is happening with SpiceJet.
The Age of Budget Airlines
The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), in its audit of SpiceJet in September 2021, revealed that the airline was undergoing a severe cash crunch – and that its maintenance procedures were concerning.
Further, on Wednesday, 6 July, in its show-cause notice to SpiceJet, it said, “SpiceJet has failed to establish safe, efficient, and reliable air services under Aircraft Rules,1937."
It added that it had found that component suppliers were not being paid on a regular basis, leading to shortage of spare parts.
Lenish Patel, Team Lead at aviation consultancy CAPA (Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation) India, told The Quint, "Financial crunch is a visible cause of concern and without significant recap, structural challenges such as recent ones cannot be avoided."
"However, we still have to wait for SpiceJet to respond to the show-cause notice to understand the severity of the challenge," he added.
So far, SpiceJet Chairman and Managing Director Ajay Singh, as quoted by news agency PTI, has denied that the recent malfunctions had anything to do with the shortage of spare parts.
"We will rigorously inspect aircraft when they leave for a flight, which we already do, but we will strengthen the inspection."Ajay Singh
In the age of budget airlines – or low-cost airlines, senior journalist N Madhavan believes, aviation companies are cutting costs and that seems to be affecting their maintenance. Most airlines have been functioning on budget controls, he pointed out, especially with the additional stress of the pandemic.
''To keep costs low, maintenance seems to have gone for a toss," he said. "Although safety is a non-negotiable, it is often a calculated risk. If someone offers you a cheaper deal, you take it," he said.
‘The DGCA is Lax’
While the airline's financial troubles seems to be a more obvious concern, the DGCA's negligence is an underlying cause.
Prosenjit Datta, who specialises in business and markets at Ernst & Young, opines that the regulatory body is not vigilant enough.
“Often you read about the DGCA asking questions only after a bad news article about potential accidents and engine failures. This could be because the regulatory body is understaffed and their regulatory manpower can’t catch up with full safety requirements,” he said.
He pointed towards the role of the Ministry of Civil Aviation – and the need for its active participation in matters pertaining to safety, especially now that there are no national airlines after the Air India takeover by the Tatas.
CAPA's Patel echoed a similar sentiment. He told The Quint, "The Ministry of Civil Aviation has to ensure that there is no compromise as far as safety is concerned and we expect them to ensure strict adherence to all safety norms and protocols."
‘Panic is Unwarranted’
Although the DGCA and SpiceJet need to work together to ensure better protocol adherence, Patel said that the incidents like the ones that have been reported are very common across airlines – and are not ''alarming."
"As more and more passengers take to the sky, general awareness has increased, which has led to people noticing and flagging these incidents more often," said Patel. Panic in this case, according to him, is unwarranted.
Meanwhile, Madhavan said that even if one works on the assumption that these incidents happen across airlines, one has to understand that these incidents are "difficult to hide" mainly because passengers are on board and they usually spread the word on social media."
Notably, smoke was detected in a Raipur-Indore IndiGo flight on Tuesday, 5 July, and the engine of a Bangkok-Delhi Vistara flight failed shortly after it landed at the Indira Gandhi International Airport on the same day.
Only three weeks ago, on 20 June, another IndiGo flight operating from Guwahati-Delhi returned to the Guwahati airport, due to a suspected bird hit after takeoff.
‘Not a Boeing 737 Issue’
These incidents, however, are unlikely a Boeing issue.
The US Federal Aviation Administration re-certified the Boeing 737 Max in December 2020, and the DGCA in August 2021 allowed the carrier only after "several checks and audits,” according to Patel.
The operating Boeing 737 fleet is used by low-cost carriers (LCCs) and full-service carriers (FSCs) globally. "We don't see any challenges to the Boeing 737 MAX operations,” said Patel.
Following two fatal crashes – one involving an Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max plane near Addis Ababa in 2019 and the other on a Lion Air operated 737 Max carrier in Indonesia – the aviation regulator had grounded the 737 Max planes. All 157 and 189 people aboard the two planes were killed in the crashes.
The DGCA had, however, rescinded the ban in 2021 allowing these carriers to fly again.
Additionally, following the China Eastern Airlines crash in March 2022 –which killed all 132 people on board – the DGCA put all Boeing 737s under “enhanced surveillance,” mandating them to go through weekly audits.
SpiceJet, which continues to be under scrutiny, has tiptoed past all the allegations made by the DGCA and others so far.
In a statement on Twitter, post the DGCA’s show-cause notice, the airlines said that “it is committed to ensuring a safe operation for its passengers and crew”.
"All flights of SpiceJet are conducted in compliance with the applicable regulations of the DGCA Civil Aviation Regulations on the subject."SpiceJet