It was not a pleasant first day of the year for the passengers of Jet Airways 9W-907 flight. While they boarded the Delhi-Kolkata flight on time at 10 am, the aircraft could only take off after five hours at 3 pm. “It was a harrowing experience to wait inside the aircraft for five hours, there were children, elderly people there and since the aircraft was on the ground we were not being allowed to use the lavatory,” said Smriti Mantri, a passenger on the flight.
With the north India fog severely disrupting airline’s schedule, one of the biggest irritants for flyers has been to wait endlessly inside the aircraft waiting for it to fly. Planes pushed back from the gate, only to sit on the runway for what seemed eternity.
So why doesn’t the airline allow passengers to deplane during such delay? Blame it on multiple factors like complicated rules, which makes deboarding of passengers time consuming in a cutthroat business that forces airlines to jam multiple flights in a thin time slot, while battling infrastructure crunch at airports.
First, why are the airlines reluctant to deboard passengers in case of delay? The way, aviation system currently works in India, aircraft enter the take-off queue on a first-come-first-serve basis. The aircraft gets a departure sequence only when it has closed its door after boarding passengers. “Once I close the doors, I am in the queue, during extreme foggy days when schedules have been disrupted, there can be 100 planes in the queue, if I return to the gate I lose the sequence and delay my passenger even more,” said the commander of a private airline.
Airline officials say that there needs to be a change in this process. “The departure sequence number should be given based on the scheduled time of departure and not boarding status if an airline misses the sequence once the fog clears, put them at the bottom of the list,” said an executive of a private airline.
Even if the passengers are disembarked, they have to go back to the arrival terminal and pass again through the security enclosure as CISF has denied permission for reverse entry. Airlines don’t like to take that pain. “It takes a lot of time again forcing a further delay. Why should the passenger have to undergo security again? They should wait directly at the gate and board again through aerobridge or bus,” the airline executive said.
CISF boss O P Singh said that reverse entry for passengers can cause a security breach. “The airside is not a complete sanitised zone, there is ground handling staff and even outside workers near the runway, once a passenger disembarks any equipment can be handed over to him between boarding gate and the plane. It’s important that he undergoes security check for the complete safety of the aircraft,” he said. Airlines refuse the claim saying that such practice is permitted in high security markets like USA.
“If someone wanted to hand something over to the passenger, they could do it during boarding too, even in developed markets like USA, which has stringent security measures, reverse entry is permitted,” said the executive mentioned above.
Lastly, there is a considerable doubt whether airports terminals will have space for passengers if airlines disembark them. Look at Terminal 1 of Delhi Airport. Against a structural capacity of 11 million passengers per annum, it is handling almost 20 million passengers at peak hours. It won't have any space if disembarked passengers come in.
Good news is that the government has taken notice of the pain and has formed a task force to improve operating procedure during foggy days. “The panel will contemplate on various facts like building sterile zones where passengers can be sent after deboarding, giving better fog alert so that passengers can be given more clarity,” he said.