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Dense Fog, CAT III, and a Slap: How Delhi's IGI Airport Descended Into Chaos

Passengers have blamed the airlines and authorities for keeping them in the dark.

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Over the last three days, the woes of passengers wanting to catch a flight from or to Delhi have dominated social media platforms. There have been delays, disruptions, cancellations, and passengers lashing out at airlines for the chaos and the lack of communication and compensation.

The authorities, however, say that the weather conditions are beyond their control.

Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGI) currently handles, on average, 1,400-1,500 flights daily.

Airport officials told The Quint that on Monday, 15 January, around 10 flights so far, which were expected to land at IGI, have been diverted to Jaipur, as the captains of those flights were not CAT-III compliant.

"Over 300 flights have been delayed and the impact will recede only gradually," they said.

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    (Photo: Ridhima Bhatnagar)

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    (Photo: Ridhima Bhatnagar)

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    (Photo: Ridhima Bhatnagar)

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'Customer Care Failed To Provide Any Accurate Information'

Currently, the IGI airport has four runways. One of them is under maintenance, but of the remaining three, only one is CAT III compliant, which, in aviation, refers to a type of instrument landing system (ILS) approach that allows for landing in very low visibility conditions, such as during fog, rain, or snow.

Jitendra Bhargava, the former executive director of Air India, told The Quint that "operational constraints need to be considered because no airline benefits from delays or diversions caused by fog.

"Airlines suffer financially when schedules go haywire. So, they will do their best to minimise delays, but weather conditions are beyond their control," he added.

Yet, passengers have blamed the authorities for keeping them in the dark.

Navin Prakash, who had to travel from Jharkhand's Deoghar to Delhi, shared his ordeal:

"I had booked a ticket for myself and my sister for 10 January. The flight was IndiGo 6E 2192. I was aware that 6E 2192 flights were cancelled till 9 January due to the fog. I had an onward Air India flight from Delhi to London on 12 January. I called IndiGo Airlines' customer care to know the status of my 10 January flight. Customer care failed to provide any accurate information. They said that IndiGo could cancel the flight any time before departure. My only request to IndiGo and other airlines would be to not communicate these details last minute on the day of the flight. This is especially important for airports like Deoghar where alternative arrangements cannot be made quickly. In my case, I lost all the money that I paid to purchase my flight ticket."
Navin Prakash told The Quint

While this is an unpleasant experience for any passenger, the law on flight delays or cancellations says:

"Airlines will not have the obligation to pay compensation in cases where the delays and cancellations are caused by an event of force majeure i.e. extraordinary circumstances beyond the control of an airline, the impact of which leads to delays of flights."

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Why the Issue Revolves Around CAT III Technology

On Monday, Union Minister of Civil Aviation Jyotiraditya Scindia took stock of the situation and tweeted, "The authorities, therefore, were compelled to enforce a shut-down of operations for some time even on CAT III runways (CAT III runways cannot handle Zero-Visibility operations). The decision was taken keeping passenger safety in mind, which remains the foremost priority for all in the aviation ecosystem."

As of publishing this report, it appears that IndiGo has borne the brunt of this chaos.

"Due to the low visibility and dense fog conditions across north India, IndiGo flight operations were impacted on 14 January 2024. This had a cascading effect on our operations throughout the day," the airline said on Sunday.

"Our staff kept passengers apprised of all delays and cancellations across airports and made every possible effort to facilitate the passengers. We sincerely regret the inconvenience caused to our passengers," it added.

Recently, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) issued a show cause notice to Air India and SpiceJet for not deploying CAT III trained pilots to operate in low visibility conditions, following diversions of various flights amid the dense fog at IGI airport in December 2023.

"DGCA is the weakest link in the aviation sector with no accountability. It believes in only reacting, not working proactively. The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) is the DGCA's counterpart in the US. Earlier this week, when thousands of flights were affected due to a snowstorm and resultant visibility issues, the FAA communicated to passengers through social media that they should contact the airport and the airline to check about their flights. Has anyone seen such an advisory from the DGCA?"
Jitendra Bhargava, former Air India executive director

It is worth noting that on Monday night, the DGCA issued SOPs to airlines stating that they may cancel flights that are expected to be delayed beyond 3 hours, sufficiently in advance.

The directive from India's aviation regulator also required airlines to provide real-time updates to passengers on flight delays by sharing them through SMS, WhatsApp, and email, according to a report by Hindustan Times.

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When a Passenger Crossed All Lines

Dense fog has also affected flight operations in other cities such as Varanasi and Chennai.

Akasa Air had to cancel four flights from the city – QP 1698 Bengaluru-Varanasi, QP 1497 Varanasi-Mumbai, QP 1491 Mumbai-Varanasi, and QP 1424 Varanasi-Bengaluru.

Similarly, IndiGo diverted its Singapore-Chennai flight to Hyderabad due to adverse weather conditions. SpiceJet also cautioned passengers on flights from Delhi, Amritsar, Darbhanga, Guwahati, Bagdogra, Varanasi, Jammu, Patna, Tezpur, and Gorakhpur.

These delays were followed by chaotic scenes at the IGI airport, leaving passengers fuming.

However, a passenger now identified as Sahil Kataria crossed all lines when he allegedly assaulted a pilot onboard an IndiGo flight (6E 2175) from Delhi to Goa, which was delayed by several hours due to the fog. Soon after the incident, the passenger was whisked out of the plane and handed over to security.

The pilot filed a complaint against Kataria and the airline is also filing an official case over the incident.

"On January 14, 2024, during the announcement of a flight delay by the first officer of flight 6E 2175, a passenger assaulted the first officer. As per protocol, the passenger was declared unruly and handed over to the local law enforcement agencies for further action," IndiGo said in an official statement.

"The incident is being referred to the independent internal committee for appropriate action and inclusion of the passenger on the 'no-fly list' as laid down in regulatory guidelines," the statement read.

While fog-related issues may not be fixed overnight, it is clear that the IGI airport needs to have more than one CAT III-compliant runway. Furthermore, airlines need to roster more CAT III pilots during fog season which typically runs from 15 December to 15 February.

Lastly, airlines also need to be more transparent with passengers about the delays at short intervals by informing them about the necessary specifics.

(Ridhima Bhatnagar is a freelance journalist.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Aviation   Airports   Flight Cancelled 

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