Dense fog and cold wave conditions in northern India have disrupted flight operations, especially at the country’s largest airport, New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International (IGI) airport. Excessive delays and flight cancellations resulted in tempers running high among passengers and assault of pilots too. However, extraordinary situations can be handled with better communication with passengers.
On Monday morning, 100 flights were cancelled at the Delhi airport due to heavy fog and as many as 168 flights were delayed. Social media was full of angry complaints from passengers from all over India, who had to spend hours stuck in airports due to disruptions. A video of an angry flyer assaulting an IndiGo pilot went viral and the company later announced that the passenger had been put on no-flying list.
Monday’s chaos resulted in the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) issuing standard operating procedures (SOPs) to airlines regarding flight cancellations due to excessive delays during adverse weather conditions.
“Communication is the key. Unfortunately, not all pilots are gifted with the art of communication or the art of speaking for that matter. We are happy doing this mechanical landing and taking off airplanes. The moment you ask us to come out of our domain and start speaking, it starts to create a little bit of an issue,” Captain Sam Thomas, president of The Airline Pilots' Association of India told The Core.
Following Monday’s disruptions, Civil aviation minister Jyotiraditya Scindia took to microblogging site X (previously known as Twitter) to announce that the Delhi Airport was being instructed to expedite operations of the CAT III runway, equipped to handle landing in adverse weather conditions.
As per DGCA’s SOPs, airlines need to communicate clearly to keep them informed about the situation. In situations where passengers are stuck at any airport due to multiple flight cancellations and are angry about it, most people are expecting an answer to only one question, which is when their flight would take off. But airlines also generally have no answer to such questions as flying is dependent on weather conditions.
“From a customer perspective, it's a valid question that they want to know when will the flight take off, but from the airline perspective, do they have this information? Can they have this information? The answer is no. So it's not a communication failure per se,” Jitendra Bhargava, former executive director at Air India told The Core.
One passenger wrote on X how IndIGo notified him only at the airport that his flight was cancelled and there was no communication about the same till he reached the airport. Another person wrote about how his father’s IndiGo flight was first delayed by two hours and after that, the flight was cancelled without adjusting him to another flight. He said that his father had to travel seven hours by road to attend an important meeting. Another passenger said that he had an 8.20 flight to Coimbatore for a meeting which was cancelled and again the next flight at 10 am was also cancelled.
To address the problem of lack of information, the DGCA’s SOP made it compulsory for airlines to publish accurate real-time information about flight delays. It also said that companies had to sensitise airport staff to patiently communicate with passengers amid fog-related disruptions at airports. Airport staff or airline companies need to guide, inform, and adequately communicate with passengers about flight disruptions.
“I as a communicator would say, yes, go ahead and communicate because you're not concocting that the fire is disrupting the flight. You are on solid ground. People are seeing it so share it with them. The visibility level is this at the moment, this is what the Met (meteorological department) says and this is what the scenario is and we are doing it for your safety. And it happens the world over,” Bhargava said.
Communication Is Key
Flight disruptions due to bad weather are not peculiar to India. In fact, on Tuesday, over 1,700 flights were cancelled in the US and as many as 3,700 were delayed due to bad weather conditions. While the situations are similar in both countries, passengers in the US are appreciative of the operational constraints that airlines have to deal with for a factor that is beyond their control.
“They (airlines) should communicate but what I've been surprised is you have a crisis on hand, so many passengers are impacted because there is no leadership in the aviation industry. IndiGo is the largest domestic player, for example, or Tatas for example, having three airlines under their belt, somebody has to come forth that we apologise, we are sorry about it, but it is a fact beyond our control. Please, appreciate the constraints,” Bhargava said.
It is important to also understand the complexity of the delays that cannot be explained in a finite amount of time. Thomas said that the problem in India is that the first response to tackle such a crisis is not to give out the correct picture. “Our first resort is to tell some kind of falsified information. This happens with the ground staff, this happens with the cabin crew, this happens with the pilots, and with the other management as well. Now, not entirely their fault. As I said, the complexity of delays and the information flow that follows, that is not the most robust at all times,” Thomas said.
Thomas said that there should be realistic scenarios that every pilot should be taught how to deal with in the annual refresher. Not all pilots are suave speakers and announcements could be customised for them to speak. “These are the challenges we are facing and I think we should bring in corporate communicators to start tutoring the pilots and the staff in general as well,” Thomas said.