At 5.30 this morning, barely hours before the dense fog played havoc with airline schedules and pushed countless restive passengers to their brink, the Airports Authority of India unveiled what seemed like the best Christmas gift: the Delhi airport will now have “ILS CAT IIIB” (Instrument Landing System, Category IIIB).
This means planes can land in Delhi even when visibility is down to 50 m. This is an upgrade of the existing Category III A—installed two years ago—which allowed planes to land in 200-m visibility.
What the AAI didn’t say in its one-page announcement was that there are no staff trained on this new system. That this system is still with its US manufacturer Sensis since the installation of the sensors—that detect and identify planes—isn’t complete. That the manufacturer’s team still has the password to the system and is now away for Christmas.
The key upgrade from III A to III B involves a radar system to monitor movement on the airfield to guide aircraft as they land in the dense fog.
An investigation by The Sunday Express shows how the AAI—which has been clamouring that its bid be accepted to revamp Delhi’s and Mumbai’s airports to world standards—has bypassed key steps, has cut corners in the upgrade.
The upgrade decision was taken in 2003 but the radar system reached Delhi only in mid-October this year.
A team of maintenance staff and controllers were to attend a training course from December 16 to 23 at Sensis in East Syracuse, New York. But the AAI took time in firming up plans and wanted the company to delay the programme by a couple of days. Sensis got back saying this was not possible due to the Christmas break in the US.
Result: There is no air traffic controller or maintanence staff trained on this new system.
The Civil Aviation Ministry set a December deadline for the system to be up and running so the AAI tried to fast-forward matters.
It’s yet to carry out the mandatory Safety Acceptance Test that checks all parameters and obtains user satisfaction.
AAI rushed through the paperwork in the last four days to get an OK from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation though the controls of the system are yet to be officially handed over to AAI.
Sensis has cleared the system only for ‘‘observational’’ use. In its two-page guide on using the system, Sensis clearly mentions that AAI should restrict the use of this equipment to trials. “This is an observational system for familiarisation and still under integration. Currently only limited functionality has been enabled, so please limit usage to the above functions during this trial phase.’’
Strangely, this guide was circulated to air traffic controllers as late as yesterday as instructions on how to use the system except that it was for real. Under pressure from top officials, the AAI even risked not training any of its staff on the system.
“As far as I am concerned, the system is operational and has been used. Two Alitalia flights used it after 5-30 am,’’ said acting Airport Director S K Mishra.
But the fact is that these two planes took off when visibility was 125 metres, there was no arrival using this system which is essentially to aid landing aircraft.
It’s also learnt that there are there to four “blind spots” in the radar coverage which includes parking bays 48 and 49—these need to be fixed. Until two days ago, the DGCA itself was worried about ‘‘spurious signals’’ which resulted in distortion of the image reflect on the radar.
At the end of the day, even the DGCA has played it safe by adding a rider that in case there is even the slightest malfunction in any of systems or sub-systems of the CAT IIIB, it must be immediately downgraded. In other words, go back to CAT III A, in other words, the fog will rule.