IndiGo gets rid of A320 Neo ghost, GoAir planes continue to be scary

The A320 Neo aircraft of IndiGo and GoAir became major talking points following repeated on-ground and mid-air snags

IndiGo gets rid of A320 Neo ghost, GoAir planes continue to be scary
IndiGo and GoAir have had to deal with debilitating engine issues. Image courtesy: Airbus

Market leader IndiGo has completed the full replacement of the faulty Pratt and Whitney (PW) engines on its Airbus A320 Neo planes before the August 31, 2020 deadline set by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), reports said. However, smaller peer GoAir could not meet the deadline. 

Till September 13, GoAir had still not replaced around 20 PW engines on its A320 Neo planes. The DGCA, though, continues to ground the planes that lack modified PW engines.  

A PW-India spokesperson pointed out though that a vast majority of the engines in GoAir's fleet has been replaced and the company is working with the Wadia-group-operated airline to get the remaining engines upgraded. Currently, while IndiGo has 106 PW-powered twin-engine A320 Neo planes, there are 43 such planes in GoAir's fleet. 

"Indigo has 134 A320/321 aircraft with Neo engines which all now have modified Neo engines. GoAir has 46 aircraft with Neo engines out of which both engines have now been modified in 30 aircraft." civil aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri tweeted on September 15.

The A320 Neo aircraft using PW engines had become major talking points following repeated on-ground and mid-air snags. Four snags were witnessed in A320 Neo planes operated by IndiGo in a week in October 2019. 

IndiGo witnessed its 22nd engine snag in two years on January 24, 2020. The lives of 95 passengers and crew onboard a Mumbai-Hyderabad flight experienced severe vibrations and a loud bang at 23,000 feet leading to one of the engines going bust, leaving the pilots with no other option but to return to base and undertake an emergency landing on one engine. 

Only a few days before that, a Pune-Jaipur flight of the same airline, carrying 176 passengers, including three infants, had to go through the same ordeal. GoAir has also had to deal with teething engine issues. 

In September, pilots of a GoAir A320 Neo aircraft en route from Hyderabad to Ahmedabad had to shut down one of its engines mid-air, causing the plane to land on one good engine, Bloomberg reported. What is particularly disconcerting is the fact that both the engines' turbines had already been modified after repeated glitches. This raises question over the effectiveness of the PW engine modifications and casts doubt on the safety of the A320 Neo planes even after the fixes. 

The culprit

The culprit in all these incidents was the same: Airbus A320/321 Neo jetliners operating on PurePower PW-1100G-JM engines from Pratt and Whitney. Importantly, the problems are not with the A320/321 Neo planes per se, but with the PW engines.

A Pratt and Whitney PurePower PW-1100G-JM engine of the Airbus A320 Neo. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Don-vip

The A320 Neo family was envisaged to offer up to 20% savings in fuel burn per seat by 2020, two tonnes of additional payload, 500 nautical miles of more range, lower operating costs, nearly 50% reduction in engine noise, and a cut in nitrogen oxide emissions to 50% below the current industry standard. In India, apart from IndiGo and GoAir, national carrier Air India and Vistara operate A320 Neo planes.

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The baseline A320 Neo (New Engine Options) has a choice of two new-generation engines - the PurePower PW1100G-JM from Pratt and Whitney and the LEAP-1A from CFM International - and features large, fuel-saving wingtip devices called Sharklets. While IndiGo and GoAir operate A320/321 Neo planes on PW engines, Air India and Vistara use the CFM engines.  

Indian skies started to turn unsafe

Another pattern has been noticed in the incidents involving the PW engines. According to a report in the Hindustan Times, the DGCA had pointed out that A320 Neo planes that have flown for over 2,900 hours in climb phase and didn’t have a new modified PW engine supplied after June 2019 were most prone to developing glitches. Unmodified engines that have clocked less than 2,900 hours had not been showing any problems.

IndiGo is the leader in the Indian aviation sector. It carried 61.51 lakh passengers in November 2019, according to DGCA data, which gave it a whopping 47.5% market share. GoAir carried 14.22 lakh passengers in the same month, giving it a market share of 11%. According to latest reports, IndiGo's market share ballooned to more than 60% in July 2020 even with the novel coronavirus wreaking havoc in the aviation industry across the world. 

While its domestic peers are floundering in the face of government-imposed restrictions and dramatic drop in the demand for air travel and have reported massive losses, IndiGo still sits on a huge pile of cash reserves, has undertaken stringent cost-cutting measures, and focused on strongly relaunching operations on May 25. Add to this the fact that IndiGo owns the largest fleet of A320 Neo family aircraft. It is the world's biggest customer of Neos. It has a total order book of 730 A320 Neo planes. 

GoAir, however, has not been as well placed. At 3.8%, it had the smallest market share among the major domestic airlines in July. The Airports Authority of India (AAI) had put GoAir on a cash-and-carry mode from August 11, which means that the airline would have to pay its dues upfront to use the services of airports operated by the AAI.   

Considering the market share of IndiGo, in particular, and the fact that passengers ordinarily do not enquire about the type of plane that they are put on, the lives of lakhs of people were put in grave risk, unless the DGCA ensured that IndiGo fell in line and GoAir was in the process of complying with its directions.      

Timely action by DGCA

What saved the day for the stricken A320/321 Neo planes was a second, modified engine. Twin-engine planes can land safely on one engine, and if one engine stops, it is brought to idle and an emergency landing is made at the nearest airport.

An Airbus A320 Neo powered by a CFM engine. Image courtesy: Airbus

The DGCA must be thanked for ensuring that no A320/321 Neo flies on two unmodified engines. This led to a number of planes being grounded for engine replacement, preventing a major catastrophe in the process. GoAir had to cancel several flights citing Airbus and PW's failure to deliver aircraft and engines, including those required for replacement in grounded Neos, on time.  

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In August last year, the regulator ordered IndiGo and GoAir to not accept engines that lack a modified version of the 1100-series turbines. 

But, undue leniency

What had, however, been criticised was that the deadline for the removal of faulty engines had been extended time and again. Initially, unmodified PW engines on 13 GoAir A320 Neos and 23 IndiGo A320 Neos had to be replaced by November 13 and November 19, 2019, respectively. These deadlines for the two airlines was extended to November 24. Subsequently, IndiGo was asked by the DGCA to replace the unmodified engines on all its 97 A320 Neo planes by January 31, 2020. Then, the deadline for IndiGo and GoAir was further extended to May 31, 2020.  

According to a Times of India report on January 24, 2020, IndiGo needed to replace 137 unmodified PW engines on its A320/321 Neo planes. Seventy of its Neo planes needed engine replacement. The DGCA had hoped that 70% of the engines of IndiGo's Neos would have been modified by the earlier deadline of January 31, 2020.

The extension of the deadline could have been done keeping in mind the sudden and sharp decline in aircraft supply that would happen if several planes are grounded in one fell swoop. This would have raised fares substantially apart from flight shortage, causing a lot of inconvenience to the passengers. However, the safety and security of the passengers and crew members must always have priority above everything else and considering the risk of flying even when one of the two engines is a 'less snag-prone' modified PW version, all Neos should have been grounded unless they completely got rid of their unmodified PW engines.

Neo (New Engine Options) entered the Indian market in 2016 and since then has been beset with problems. IndiGo acknowledged in a report on January 17, 2020, that there were issues with low-pressure turbine (LPT) stage three of the Pratt engines.

Why IndiGo's problems were more than GoAir's

An analysis shows that LPT issues or blades of the Neo engines breaking have been reported more frequently in India than elsewhere, according to an October 2019 Hindustan Times report. While there were 12 instances of LPT problems globally, IndiGo itself reported 14 such incidents since 2017 and GoAir reported one. According to a DGCA official quoted by HT, climate and dust in India were behind the engine troubles in the country.
   
Snags faced by IndiGo were much more than GoAir. This, according to a Live Mint report, happened because of the varying modes of operation of the two airlines. IndiGo revs the Neo jets at full thrust right after takeoff in a bid to burn less fuel. But this ends up putting undue pressure on the engines, wearing them down in the process. GoAir, on the contrary, uses the alt-climb approach that applies less thrust.

Pratt, a unit of United Technologies Corp, invested $10 billion to develop fuel-efficient geared-turbofan engines for single-aisle jets like the A320 Neo, but there were numerous setbacks. There were issues with cooling and durability and delivery delays. This had even impelled IndiGo to shift to CFM engines in June 2019 with a $20 billion order, Live Mint reported. Each engine replacement on the A320 Neo planes costs $10 million.

An Airbus A320 Neo takes flight. Image courtesy: Airbus

The DGCA instructed IndiGo to ground one A320 Neo that hasn’t had its engines fixed every time a new plane joined its fleet. This prevented IndiGo -- Asia's biggest budget airline by market value -- from adding new planes till the engine issue was resolved. It also disturbed the company's plans to expand its network to include far-off destinations including London.

In June this year, the DGCA extended the deadline to replace the faulty PW engines till August 31, 2020, after factoring in the disruption of supply chains and production lines as a result of the Covid-induced lockdown. The regulator had identified 60 such engines that are to be replaced and instructed the two airlines to only fly planes in which both the engines are of the modified version. The DGCA said that this should not be difficult for the airlines given that curtailed air operations are likely to last for some more time. 

IndiGo had assured that it would complete replacing the faulty PW engines on its last batch of 14 A320 Neo planes by August-end, and it kept its promise. According to a Live Mint report, IndiGo had entered an agreement take delivery of engines from CFM International for its A320 Neo planes from August. 

IndiGo, like its rivals, has been hit hard by the Covid-19 crisis and the resultant travel restrictions and weakening of demand. It had reported a loss of Rs 870.81 crore in the March quarter, from a year-ago profit of Rs 596 crore. It had also announced a plan to lay off one-tenth of its staff, or about 2,700 people. However, IndiGo still boasts of a cash reserve of Rs 18,449.8 crore despite a sharp drop in the June quarter and looks to have the wherewithal to weather the Covid storm. 

GoAir's position is far weaker. It had asked the government and banking system for financial support and had implemented strict cost-cutting measures including salary cuts and leave without pay. According to a Crisil report, Indian carriers are staring at a combined loss of Rs 1.3 trillion between fiscals 2020 and 2022 owing to the pandemic.