The lack of accountability by departments concerned and the indifference attitude of elected representatives have made air transport service to the Kolkata-Tezpur-Lilabari route a farce and put the lives of passengers at risk. Air India has been operating with 20 plus years old aircraft in this route.
The malfunctioning of landing wheel of Air India’s flight AI 9739 from LGBI Airport in Guwahati to Lilabari Airport in Lakhimpur in the beginning of this year opened a Pandora’s Box on safety standards of some of the fleet of the national career operating in the Kolkata-Tezpur-Lilabari route.
The ATR42-320 aircraft cruising over Jorhat while approaching Lilabari on January 10 developed a technical snag to open its landing wheels. The aircraft was to make an emergency landing but since the Lilabari airport does not have the logistics for such landing, the flight AI9739 was flown back to LGBI airport at Borjhar in Guwahati and it landed safely there.
Besides causing irreparable losses to the passengers on board, which included many from Kolkata; the incident deprived and affected the travel plans of waiting passengers at Lilabari who could not reach Guwahati, Kolkata and other destinations on that day. The incident is one such mark on the various limitations affecting the air service to Lilabari from Kolkata via Guwahati affecting people from the northeastern corner of the state as well as from Arunachal Pradesh.
Earlier on August 20, 2017 Air India’s flight AI 9739 was delayed for seven hours for technical snag. There were many incidents in which the same flight gets delayed to land at Lilabari due to various technical problems.
An investigation by Northeast Now found heartening conditions of the ATR 42 aircraft run by Alliance Air, a subsidiary of Air India in the Kolkata-Guwahati-Lilabari route in which most of the planes are almost as old as a quarter of a century. As per records shown by planespoters.net the three 48 seated ATR42-320 aircraft currently operated by Air India are 22 years 9 months, 23 years and 22 years 3 months old.
Manufactured by Avions De Transport Regional (ATR), France, the aircraft of ATR42-320 model, the aeronautical fatigue factor of the ATR42-320 aircraft operated by Air India’s Alliance Air has never been known to common public and travelers.
The ATR has a Damage Tolerance design approach for a Design Service Goal (DSG) of 70 000 flights or equivalent 25 years. Accordingly, all the three ATR42-320 aircraft of Air India are fast approaching this fatigue level. At 26th Session of International Committee on Aeronautical Fatigue in Montreal in 2011, ATR presented Extended Service Goal (ESG) of 105 000 flights for both ATR 42 and 72 models with feedback from the in service world fleet and the results of major fatigue inspections. Since ATR42-320 aircraft were delivered to Alliance Air before 2009 it has not been clear whether ATR’s Air India fleet has upgraded its DSG status to ESG or not.
On the other hand, Air India has number of 70 seated ATR 72-600 aircraft meant for its regional services. The national career received its first ATR 72-600 on December 16, 2014 and had up to fourteen such till January 25 this year. Four more such aircraft are to be inducted in the fleet as found in the Alliance Air fleet Details and History of planespotters.net.
All these aircraft are new and their average age is less than 2 years. The official website of Air India however says only five ATR 72-600 aircraft are being operated in only one zone. Therefore the demand for accommodating ATR 72-600 aircraft for Alliance Air’s regional service in the Kolkata-Guwahati-Lilabari route bears justification. The number of technical snags for which flights were disrupted in this service strongly calls for introduction of ATR 72-600 aircraft up to Lilabari by Alliance Air (Air India) for not only the regular and timely frequency but also for the safety of the air passengers of this region.
It may be recalled that the North Eastern Council signed an MoU with Alliance Air for better air connectivity in North East Region on September 24, 2014 under Viability Gap Funding (VGF) scheme.
Under the scheme the North Eastern Council would provide subsidy based on viability gap (cost minus revenue) to Alliance Air for flight operations to connect Shillong, Tezpur, Lilabari, Silchar with Kolkata/Guwahati till March 31, 2016.
Though the time period has expired long ago, the national career has its obligation to provide undisrupted and safe air service to this region. Air India can also provide its short to medium-range turbofan powered the Bombardier CRJ700 aircrafts to this route with cheaper tickets.
Air connectivity to Lilabari in Lakhimpur district was restored in 2014 following internment services from 2003 onwards following the reconstruction of the airport. Alliance Air operates flights on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday from Kolkata to Lilabari via Guwahati but this four-day service proves to be meaningless as travelers could not avail the service in all weekdays. The airport is also connected to Dibrugarh and Tezpur by a private operator in the latest Udaan project of Ministry of Civil Aviation, Government of India.
On November 28, 2017 WA Ansari, the then Manager of Airports Authority of India, at Leelabari made an announcement during a meeting with Lakhimpur Deputy Commissioner Barun Bhuyan and District Chambers of Commerce president Uday Shankar Hazarika at the Deputy Commissioner’s office, North Lakhimpur that a new flight between Lilabari and New Delhi would soon be introduced besides upgrading the present ‘four days a week’ flight service between Kolkata and Lilabari via Guwahati to ‘all days a week’. But nothing has been happening so far in Lilabari.
A meeting of the Airport Advisory Committee (AAC), chaired by Pradan Baruah, MP, Lakhimpur was held at Lilabari airport on June 22 this year where matters related to the improvement of the airport and better passenger facilities were discussed. Issues related to the land acquisition and expansion of the Lilabari airport was also discussed in the meeting.
The meeting had discussed the additional 84 acres of land to be acquisitioned by the airport to make Lilabari with required infrastructure for setting up of a pilot and civil aviation training centre. The AAC meeting also discussed about connecting Lilabari airport with cheaper flights by Spicejet under Mission Udaan and connecting Itanagar and Majuli with helicopter taxi service in the coming days.
It may be recalled that Lilabari airport has been in use for civil aviation since 1952, where Indian Airlines operated regular flights from Kolkata via Rowriah (Jorhat) and Mohanbari till late 1980s. But the airport went through a lean phase thereafter until it was upgraded with a longer runway and passenger terminal in 2003.
Now Air India’s regional service has been providing ATR services since 2014. However, with an important state capital Itanagar, situated within an hour’s drive, the Lilabari airport can accommodate passengers from neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh so that they can travel to any part of the country. Larger aircraft like Boeing and Airbus can operate from this airport and routes like Imphal-Lilabari-Guwahati and beyond can be operated from here.