Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Mumbai-Singapore fliers stranded, top executive shunted

MUMBAI/NEW DELHI: The New Year has started with a double whammy for Air India. The airline rostered a pilot—who was suspended a day earlier—to operate the Mumbai-Singapore flight on Wednesday morning. Since that pilot did not report for work the flight had to be cancelled for "non-availability of crew", leaving 220 passengers stranded in Mumbai for over 24 hours.

After learning of the serious lapse, aviation minister Ajit Singh ordered the removal of the in-charge of pilot rostering—GM (operations) H Y Samant—from his position for deputing a suspended Captain R S Dhillon for the cancelled flight. Dhillon was suspended on December 31 for "irregularities regarding fudging of records of simulator training, (because of which) he became ineligible to fly".

"Taking a very serious view of this, the minister has instructed Air India management to immediately remove Samant, since it was his responsibility to ensure that the alternative arrangement for the crew is made well in time, more so when he was aware of the suspension of Dhillon and was also informed in this regard. It is seen as a gross dereliction of duty by Samant," an aviation ministry statement said.

The flight, AI 342, was scheduled to depart from Mumbai airport at 5am. However, about an hour before the departure, the airline announced a delay. According to airport officials, passengers had already checked in and were waiting at the terminal to board. "The airline informed them that the flight was delayed by a couple of hours. However, after some time, when passengers stared inquiring more, AI announced that the flight had been cancelled," said an official. Airport sources said that the flyers were agitated and there were many heated arguments before the situation calmed down.

This is the second time in ten days that an AI flight had to be cancelled at the eleventh hour due to a crew crisis. A Mumbai-Riyadh flight was delayed by 16 hours after the airline fell short of pilots.

"Most flyers were upset that the airline didn't inform them about the cancellation. Also, some of them had to go for urgent personal or professional commitments. These flyers were the most agitated," an airport official said. Some passenger, reportedly, booked seats on other airlines at the last minute.

An AI spokesperson confirmed that the passengers of the cancelled flight had been clubbed with the next flight at 5am. "Passengers have been provided accommodation," he added.

"The airline has expanded operations but hasn't recruited cockpit crew in the same proportion," said an official. This is why, he explained, the airline has not enough back-up during an emergency. "If a pilot reports sick at the last minute, often there is no one to fill in," he added.

Airline sources said that there is an estimated shortage of 20-25% pilots. "The airline needs to consider and act on the situation soon. Or else, flight delays and cancellations will become routine," an AI official said.

Ajit Singh has ordered an inquiry for this lapse and sought immediate disciplinary action be taken against Samant. AI's vigilance department "has now revealed that records with regard to training imparted on simulator were prima facie fudged by Dhillon. It has also been established that Dhillon has not conducted full eight hours of simulator training, in fact he has conducted less than 4 hours of training," the statement said, adding, "As this misconduct is fraught with serious implications on the training of pilots and consequently flight safety, Dhillon has been placed under suspension pending charge-sheet and further inquiry."

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