about 2 years ago
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By Ruma Dubey

You are in mid-air and suddenly there is mad turbulence and the plane starts swaying, an unsteady flight. It sputters and shakes. Naturally, what you go through at that point of time is sheer panic, fear for dear life. Those with a mild heart or any such ailment could even suffer a stroke.

That’s how passengers on board the Indigo flight from Ahmedabad to Lucknow would have felt when one of its famed P&W engine conked off; that’s the worst nightmare for any one with even the slightest fear of flying.

Following this, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) rightly grounded all Airbus narrow-body planes powered by Pratt & Whitney engines. Currently eight aircrafts of Indigo, India’s largest carrier, and three of GoAirlines India stay grounded.

The glitch with the knife-edge compressor seal is the latest in a series of troubles for the next-generation geared turbofan P&W engine. They say that it is early technology and hence requires time to settle; no option.

In early February 2018 itself, Airbus SE, the European plane maker warned of new problems with the Pratt & Whitney (P&W) engines on its A320neo planes, leading European air safety officials to issue emergency restrictions. Some planes were grounded immediately. Following this, the European Aviation Safety Agency ordered flight restrictions on planes powered by those engines. Airbus since then halted all deliveries of the Pratt-powered A320neo till further notice.

Issue with P&W is not new to India to. Last year, in Sept’17, Indigo and GoAir faced delays in receiving planes from Airbus due to ongoing problems with engines developed by P&W.

A month ago, Indigo went on record stating that it was forced to replace faulty P&W engines that power the jetliners in 69 cases over the last 18 months. Between Feb. 24 and March 12, two such cases have been reported by IndiGo and one by GoAir, each fitted with only one P&W engine.

Over the last two years, P&W has been replacing faulty engines at a higher than expected pace because of component failures. Despite that, its order book stands strong at some 8000 engines.

P&W’s geared turbofan engine are stated to be revolutionary and that’s the reason why Indigo and GoAir went ahead with these engines. In fact Delta and Lufthansa also use these very same engines.

Look at the advantage of using these P&W engines – with 40% of all the Airbus A320neos currently equipped with geared turbofans, IndiGo and GoAir are the early adaptors of these engines and they have gone on record stating that it has seen big reductions in fuel costs (16% on average), greenhouse gas emissions (50%), and noise levels (75%). But there is no denying the fact that there have been hiccups and prior issues with these P&W engines due to which planes have been sitting on the tarmac, like some of the Indigo and GoAir planes are doing now.

P&W is neither a rookie to India nor is it a fly-by-night company. It comes from United Technologies – the same company which sold its first elevator, Otis, in India in 1898; its air conditioner brand, Carrier, started selling ACs in India since 1930 and yes, it was P&W engines which powered Air India’s first 707 jetliner in 1960. So you see, they are not newbies and unreliable as some sections of the media made them out to be. But at the same time, the truth is P&W engines have been coming up faulty and like putting up band-aid, they have been coming up with quick fixes.

Last month, P&W said that it would be replacing defective components by June which meant some planes would need to fly with one affected engine for almost 8 months. Thankfully, the Indian regulator put its foot down and did not accept this solution. P&W said that it will soon start delivering engines which have been upgraded. But the sad truth is that these airlines which are grounded might take a month or two to take off – P&W says that it will be able to replace the engines only by June 2018.

For P&W or for that matter, Airbus and every airline maker, India is a booming market. Traffic serving the Indian market is forecast to grow 8.1% per annum over the next 20 years, almost twice as fast as the world average of 4.4%.

P&W needs to gets its act together or else the history which it shares with India will just come to a naught.  And for us flyers, as summer vacation approaches, this could not have come at a worse time as air fares will now soar through the sky.

And should we fly or not? It is reassuring to know that the DGCA has acted before a tragic mishap happened and taken precautionary methods. P&W engines, along with Rolls Royce and GE make some of the best products but repeated failures, that too in something as critical as airplane is unacceptable. They have to be brought to book. Till then, let’s remember that we could die even while crossing the road and every time we fly, we do put our life on the line, be it a Boeing or Airbus.

Maybe we now need to check, before boarding, the make of the engine?

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