DGCA had temporarily grounded Airbus A 320 Neos in early 2018, which was gradually lifted after Airbus and P&W assured of restoring the issues
On April 2, 2019, budget carrier IndiGo reported a mid-air engine failure on one of its flights. This was the sixth such incident in a span of two weeks involving its Airbus A 320 Neo fleet.
This was the 13th incident since January this year where this class of aircraft, mainly used flown by Indigo Airlines and Go Air, have reported problems including mid-air engine failures and mid-air turn backs.
The aircraft, powered by Pratt and Whitney (PW-1100) engine, have faced operational and technical glitches since 2017, prompting questions on why the regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) is not more stringent on such glitches that involves passenger safety.
Sector experts that Moneycontrol spoke to believe it’s time the watchdog ups its ante and “gain some technical expertise” before giving clearance to faulty engines.
“Regulators are at the crux of the problem. They blame airlines and pilots and others that they didn’t provide sufficient data or didn’t do safety check but are they, themselves, competent enough to determine what is wrong with the aircraft or may be what could go wrong,” Mark Martin, chief executive officer, Martin consultancy, told Moneycontrol.
At crux of the problem is PW-1100 engine by P&W which are used in A 320 Neo aircraft by France-based plane making giant Airbus. The fleet first reported engine failure in 2017 and has since faced several issues.
“The problem is that Indian DGCA doesn’t have the technical competence to evaluate the engine of the aircraft. The previous manpower kept on retiring and they have not been able to replace those people who can evaluate it,” Harsh Vardhan, an aviation expert told Moneycontrol.
“DGCA usually keeps non-technical people who are never able to understand the intricacies of it,” he said.
DGCA had temporarily grounded A320 Neos in early 2018, which was gradually lifted after Airbus and P&W assured of fixing the problems. A year later, in January 2019, DGCA further issued directives for IndiGo and GoAir to have “weekly inspection” of the engines “as per P&W special directions” and “train staff to identify foul smell” in the aircraft.
It imposed restriction on longer duration flights, especially to Port Blair” to avoid a situation where emergency landing can’t be done.Despite this, A320 Neo continues to face engine related issues. Recent incidents include:
|IndiGo||Apr 2, 2019||Mid-air failure, excessive engine vibration|
|IndiGo||Apr 1, 2019||Mid-air failure, oil chips in engine|
|IndiGo||Apr 1, 2019||Excessive vibration|
|IndiGo||Mar 30, 2019||Mid-air engine failure|
|IndiGo||Mar 21, 2019||Mid-air engine failure|
|GoAir||Mar 24, 2019||Take off rejected twice due to power loss in engine|
|GoAir (G8 760)||Mar 15, 2019||Mid-air engine failure, Engine 1 air bleed leakage, landed without dumping fuel|
|GoAir (G8 150)||Mar 7, 2019||Mid-air engine failure, oil chips detected in engine, unusual heating, oil loss, oil leakage, bearing problem|
|GoAir||Feb 6, 2019||Heavy vibration and mid-air failure|
|Indigo (6E 451)||Jan 21, 2019||Heavy vibration and mid-air failure|
|GoAir (G8 319,)||Jan 10, 2019||Mid-air failure and high vibration|
|IndiGo||Jan 3, 2019||Loud bang, mid-air failure, smoke and vibration|
|IndiGo (6E-6373)||Jan 1, 2019||Smoke in cockpit|
|IndiGo (6E 923)||Dec 10, 2018||Engine blades burned out and heavy smoke|
|IndiGo (6E 6616)||Dec 23, 2018||Mid-air engine failure|
|IndiGo||Nov 20, 2018||Mid-air engine failure flight|
|Indigo flight (6E 866)||
Nov 2, 2018
|Engine failure after heavy vibration|
|GoAir (G8 423)||Oct 26, 2018||High/excessive vibration in engines|
|Two GoAir flights||Oct 20, 2018||Engine failure and smoke warning in cargo|
|GoAir (G8 033)||Oct 20, 2018||Mid-air engine failure|
|GoAir||Oct 20, 2018||smoke warning in cargo, Mid-air turn back|
|IndiGo (6E 452)||October 8||Midair engine failure, gearbox disintegration, one engine goes dead|
|IndiGo||Sept 10, 2018||Oil chips detected in engine|
IndiGo (72 aircraft) and GoAir (30 aircraft) are the only two operators that use A320 Neo series planes in India. Both the airlines declined to comment on the story.
“It has been going on for year and a half… It’s not a one-time issue,” Vardhan said, adding, “The problem of in-flight shut down is a serious issue, especially for those aircrafts that have both P&W engines. It is a safety risk… They shouldn’t wait for a B737 Max-like situation to arrive”.
Vardhan was referring to grounding of Boeing manufactured 737 max series planes which were involved in two fatal accidents within a span of six months, killing over 300 passengers.
Sources said that while initial engine faults were resolved in a couple of months of operation, airlines later reported issues related to Number 3 lift of seal, combustor issues and knife edge seal.
A P&W spokesperson told Moneycontrol that steps have been by the company to resolve the issues and that 95 percent of the aircraft have been retrofitted with resolved engines.
“Remaining five percent will be done by first half of 2019,” he said.
In a written response to Moneycontrol, Airbus said that the P&W fleet “continued to meet all airworthiness criteria for safe flight (incl. ETOPS 180)” and that “root causes for disruptions and implications were understood and latest modifications (were being) performed (for) successful flight testing”.
“Fulfilling a regulator’s criteria means absolutely nothing for P&W because, in reality, they need to get down and sort the problem. They should do a complete replacement, which they aren’t doing due to cost constraint,” Martin said, adding “Even if the stakeholders say that the issues have been resolved, we need to ask why the metal is cracking in the first place. And does titanium crack? How can you justify metal fatigue on brand new engine?”
“I don’t think Airbus and P&W have done enough as the problems continue to persist. Its time they go back to basic designing and check for flaws,” Vardhan said.
Time for DGCA to go independent?
Experts opine that India operates in “extreme weather conditions,” which calls for independent decision taking with respect to clearance certification.
“India, unlike other countries, has the most varied style of operating due to extreme climate conditions. There are all kinds of climates, including high temperatures, sea shore area, hills, high mountains and rainfall. So DGCA must have a much more extensive technical role, which can check the aircraft for all these conditions,” Vardhan explained.
He further added that after the B737 Max incident, regulators across the globe should not blindly follow benchmarks set by US based Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and EU based European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) for giving out clearance certificates.
During the entire episode, FAA had intially continued to endorse statements by Boeing and had refused to ground B737 planes even as more than 50 countries barred the plane from flying in, out and over its airspace. After pressure mounted on Boeing and it agreed to ground the plane, FAA ordered “emergency grounding” of the crisis hit plane.
“The process of certification for an aircraft in India is based on FAA and EASA. Once they give the clearance, DGCA considers it to the benchmark, endorses it and gives clearance anyway. They usually do only limited checks… Only when you have a very strong reason, you are able to oppose them. Something like that happened with B737. It was like a rebellion when other counties first grounded it and then FAA agreed to do so,” Vardhan said, who added that the rating agencies or the approval agencies “must be more careful” and “shouldn’t rely on FAA or EASA certification”.
“Countries, including India, must take independent decisions and that’s what DGCA must be doing. We have seen that FAA was kind of listening to Boeing who also obtained the clearance for the aircraft by watering down things (safety norms),” he said.
EASA, in early 2018, had ordered Emergency Airworthiness Directive (EAD) for A320 Neo series planes.
“Several occurrences of engine in-flight shut-down (IFSD) and Rejected Take-Off (RTO) have been reported on certain Airbus A320neo family aeroplanes. While investigation is ongoing to determine the root cause, preliminary findings indicate that the affected engines, which have high pressure compressor aft hub modification embodied from ESN P770450, are more susceptible to IFSD. This condition, if not corrected, could lead to dual engine IFSD. To address this potentially unsafe condition, Airbus issued Alert Operators Transmission (AOT) A71N014-18, providing instructions to de-pair the affected engines and discontinue Extended range Two-engine aeroplanes Operations (ETOPS) for aircraft fitted with affected engines. For the reasons described above, this AD requires implementation of operational restrictions. This AD is considered to be an interim action and further AD action may follow,” it said in its statement.
While DGCA did not respond to queries sent by Moneycontrol, Airbus said that overall in-service P&W fleet performance “continued to improve significantly and demonstrates high level of operational reliability of 99.6 percent with trend going towards 99.7 percent. A P&W spokesperson said that “safety was non-negotiable” for the company.
Martin, however, questioned the quality of metal and equipment being used for manufacturing the airplanes and engines.
“In 2005, the Manmohan Singh government brought an anti-dumping policy, which said that technology and equipment not accepted in the world will not be brought to India and sold (here) just because we are a buyers’ market… We had an Anti-dumping Act,” he said, adding, “Make in India was surely a circumvention for anti-dumping. The Modi government's Make in India in aerospace has led to dumping of foul category of goods in India, which is being sold off after being ‘manufactured’. Are you telling me that the metal which was not accepted in the world is being dumped in India as (raw material) for engine manufacture?”
The way out of this situation could only be thorough inspection of affected engines and their complete replacement, experts said.
“DGCA has the authority to inspect these engines and see where the performance is lacking. However, in these situations where in-flight shut downs are taking place, either DGCA should withdraw their (approval) certification or impose certain conditions for their operation, like making it mandatory to have one CFM engine in case of two-engine aircraft,” Vardhan said.
Martin said that Airbus must not think about cost and should stop using P&W engines.
“A320 Neo has two engine options (CFM and P&W). Why doesn’t Airbus recommend both engines to be CFM? Why do we have to go back to P&W? The reason is the other engine is 45 percent costlier,” he said.
While P&W had to pay compensation to IndiGo and GoAir for all the grounded planes, Martin said that the company should rather use better quality material instead of giving compensation.“Is the compensation any cheaper than better quality raw material?” he questioned.