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Few scares in crowded sky

Bipin Chandran & P R Sanjai  |  New Delhi/Mumbai 

Cases of near mid-air collisions, like the Jet Airways-Sukhoi incident over Rajkot last week "" which might make you sit up "" are rare. By and large, planes do fly to destinations safe and sound.
However, the infrastructure needed to ensure that planes fly safely is under strain; there is overcrowding above metropolitan airports; and there is an acute dearth of air traffic controllers.
And to add to the woes of the traffic controllers, the government is introducing technology to gradually reduce the flying distance between two aircraft from 50 nautical miles to 15 so that more planes can land sooner. Even the height separating two aircraft is being halved from 2,000 ft to 1,000. This means double the number of planes can fly in the same airspace.
This is definitely good for passengers impatient with the seemingly endless circling before landings. But this also means the work of an air traffic controller will double, unless new officers are recruited soon.
Says an executive with Kingfisher Airlines, "While this move will allow more planes to fly, it will burden air traffic controllers until their strength is increased."
The manpower shortage is alarming. Over 3,000 aircraft criss-cross India's airspace every day, but the number of traffic controllers is just a fourth of what is required. There are about 1,313 controllers in India; 4,000 are needed to meet the requirements of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, according to the ATC Guild, the association of air traffic controllers.
Around 80 controllers work through the week guiding about 1,200 aircraft in the Delhi airspace. Of these, 500 land and take off, the rest overfly.
"We are looking at ways to increase the number of air traffic controllers. We have conducted two rounds of examinations. We will gradually bridge the gap," says a civil aviation ministry official.
But each new recruit will take over five years to train before he can become an air traffic controller.
There are grave problems in non-metro airports too, especially the smaller ones, which budget airlines are rushing to.
Admits a Directorate General of Civil Aviation official, "Half the airports in the country do not have radars." Traffic controllers in these airports depend on the radioed information by pilots to gauge the height and speed of the aircraft "" not exactly the best way to function.
The government, though, is trying to go high-tech. "We are building communication networks and implementing new satellite-based communications systems," said K Gohain, director-general of civil aviation. Such systems track a flight from take-off to landing.
There are, of course, co-ordination issues between civilian and defence air traffic controllers.
"Most flying exercises by the Indian Air Force are carried out in the airspace between Rajkot and Bhuj. Civilian controllers are mostly unaware of the exercises. Ironically, these exercises are carried out by trainee pilots," said an air traffic control official.
But the government's air safety bosses say there is no reason to panic. Says Director of Air Safety, DGCA, P Shaw, "The Indian sky is definitely not crowded. The cause of the recent incident (the Jet-Sukhoi near collision) could be a failure in co-ordination between two different agencies. We are examining the cause of the Rajkot incident."

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First Published: Tue, September 26 2006. 00:00 IST