Airlines on the unsafe runway

Jun 5, 2024

The aviation segment faces multifaceted challenges and long-term risks. Recently turbil analysed 150000 routes and showed the most turbulent journeys of 2023, The safety aspects, the demand for technology innovation, strict air safety against dangerously changing weather conditions, cost-competitiveness, etc. make the aviation industry land on an unsafe runway. The fortunes of the industry are directly linked with economic growth and income growth in the hands of people. The economy is sentimentally growing. But the industry seems to be on a bumpy ride, in terms of safety aspects, despite huge investments in sky-high future expectations and business expansion. The competition and increasing financial liabilities make the business operation all the more challenging. Last year, the aviation industry in India saw bank exposure of over Rs 45,000 crore. The investment doubled in three years. It indicates the safety concern of the industry and its preparation for necessary steps.


Broadly, the aviation industry faces multiple challenges, which are economic, climatic, technological, operational and strategic. Apart from this, there are miscalculations by the industry players, unforeseen weather changes and many other challenges against which the industry seems inadequately prepared. Possible economic downturns in countries where the air travel business generates huge cash for the exchequer can lead to a decline in air traffic. On one side, there are new safety concerns due to climate change, technological inadequacies in addressing the new risks, and financial risks against possible future operational curtailments as part of pollution mitigation measures. The amount of carbon and nitrogen oxide the industry guzzles out in the air could accelerate the heat in the atmosphere. Aircraft cannot fly without polluting fuel.    


Air travel is bumpier nowadays, an unheard-of experience! The safety of our skies for air travel is a concern. More than that, it is a sensational topic. One cannot laugh it off as an adventure air tourism or a pleasure. The Wright Brothers – Orville and Wilbur - the inventors of aviation, couldn't foresee that it would be a seed for one of the world's largest industries, many business verticals also within. The aviation business never foresaw its vulnerabilities to the changing weather conditions and economic changes. Had they patented their invention in America, their fortunes could have soared. However, branding considerations in those days led to a missed opportunity for their successors. That may be the reason, today there are over 5000 aviation companies in the world and in India over 130, including seven domestic airline operators.  


The skies are more crowded than ever because of a significant increase in air traffic compared to the past. The air travel business in India has surged because life has become busier and airfare more affordable for the middle class. Many people now choose to fly instead of spending more time travelling to reach their destination by land and water. Previously, people used water transport more for leisure than necessity as road infrastructure in India did not support their travelling plan. In recent years, millions of domestic passengers traverse the skies. Similarly, the volume of inbound travelling has increased significantly. There has been a notable rise in tourists travelling abroad from India. Recent diplomatic tension between Maldives and India prompted a successful boycott threat. Soon, Maldives surrendered to India as it realised the adverse impact on its economy. Still, there are disparities in air traffic volume between major Indian cities and developed nations. As the volume of air passengers grows, we overlook the implications for socio-economic inequality. That is a different matter.


Amidst the rush of modern air travel, we often overlook the breathtaking scenery and landscapes below. Unfortunately, air turbulence has become a common occurrence. Often, it escalates into tragic incidents due to the rapid descending, resulting in casualties and widespread industry repercussions.


Though air turbulence is common and pilots more frequently advise passengers to fasten their seat belts, the incidents were never newsworthy until recently. Suddenly, the news of air turbulence hit the media headlines. On 26th May 2024, a dozen passengers on a Qatar Airways flight from Doha to Ireland sustained injuries due to air turbulence. Such events bring to light the challenges faced by the aviation sector. Airlines must meet passenger safety protocols during adverse weather conditions. Air travel is generally perceived as the most secure mode of transportation due to strict safety tests. The brand-conscious airline operators and aircraft makers pay special attention to the safety aspects to protect their brand images. Still, there are many inherent risks due to various factors. They include human errors, pilot errors, faulty maintenance, faulty air traffic control, technical failure, hostile weather conditions, etc. Despite strict vigil and safety supervision by authorities on maintenance and safety clearance, things often go haywire. In the last five years, India witnessed 56 air accidents, though onboard fatalities were hardly a matter of concern. Most air accidents, with no fatalities, do not steal the media limelight. However, unlike other travel accidents, air accidents bewilder passengers, especially regular fliers and make their impacts widespread.


The aviation industry hitherto did not feel the impact of climate change due to the change in technologies, which absorbed the weather-induced risks. Nevertheless, these days airlines face the impact of extreme heat waves on aircraft components and safety issues arising out of this.  The existing technologies, though to some extent absorb the shocks, may not have factored in the excessive spike in atmospheric temperature. Moreover, when air temperature goes up at constant pressure air density also declines because hot air is thin. The thin air adversely impacts the lift generation, and engine efficiency of aircraft wings, correspondingly to the airspeed. Industry watchers say the sizeable new investments and borrowed money go into maintenance, repair and overhaul. The increased risk has increased the cost of operation. Fliers will have to share the price, even though competition gives them an edge. Interestingly, this has opened a new business opportunity for large industry houses. Air India and IndiGo are investing in this segment.  


All the troubles – be it air turbulence or air accidents - were its own making. Aviation turbine fuel, which is also a fossil fuel, releases CO2 emissions. Besides CO2, it releases nitrogen oxides (NOx), vapour trails and cloud formation at high altitudes. Cloud formation is the key reason for the air turbulence. They contribute to climate change with prospects for extreme heat in big ways for a long time. Nitrogen oxide molecules contribute to the warming of the atmosphere several times more than carbon dioxide. The molecules remain in the air for several years. The aviation fuel thus renders multiple risks to the aviation industry itself. Besides the cloud formation at the high altitude due to the release of a high amount of CO2, aircraft face technical complexity in operations at 30,000 feet.


Such challenges as the adverse impact of the environmental crisis, which causes an escalation of air turbulence and probably other more serious safety concerns will continue to haunt the industry. The rising cost of changing technology poses a potential threat to the feasibility of the industry, forcing it to compromise on certain aspects. The growing competition compels the operator to be cost-competitive. After significant investments in operation, maintenance, asset acquisition, heavy taxes, and payout charges through various windows, airlines find it a task to meet the breakeven. This impacts everything from the health of the company to the safety of the fliers and from the economy to climate.