The Go First incident, where an early morning flight on the Bengaluru-Delhi sector took off with the checked-in baggage of 55 passengers without them on board, has been described as a serious security breach by aviation experts.
“From what we know the Bengaluru-Delhi flight was boarding from gate number 25 at Kempegowda International Airport, which was not an aerobridge. There were four buses and the flight was delayed by around 20 minutes. At the boarding gate, the ground staff reconciles all the passengers from the checked-in load manifest, while the baggage is reconciled by the security staff at the baggage make-up area (BMA),” the head of flight operations with another airline informed requesting anonymity.
“The second step happens at the aircraft door. The security and ground staff are present there to check if all passengers have boarded. They were probably in a hurry and after three buses reached the aircraft, they released the flight without reconciling the number of passengers on board against those who had checked in,” the person added.
A document called load and trim sheet is simultaneously compiled by the ground staff known as the load controller. The sheet includes details from the security load manifest after accounting for all the passengers and baggage on board to calculate whether the aircraft is good to go as far as its weight and centre of gravity (CG) or balancing are concerned.
“The crew had no role to play here. They take a headcount only when they notice a discrepancy in the number of passengers who have checked in and the number of passengers on board based on the load manifest as well as the load and trim sheet. If the passengers on board are in not in sync with passengers who have checked in, the unidentified baggage is offloaded for security reasons,” said senior pilot and former head of operation with IndiGo, Shakti Lumba.
The load manifest and the load and trim sheet are then presented to the pilot for his signature. There is no way for the pilot to verify whether the headcount is accurate as he completely relies on the judgment of the cabin crew, who in turn is reliant on the details mentioned in the two documents to inform him that all passengers have boarded and the luggage loaded.
Airline security at fault
If such instances are not checked it may result in a serious incident like the bombing of Air India’s Kanishka aircraft that resulted in the death of all 329 people on board thirty-seven years ago. Despite not holding a confirmed booking a plotter who remains unidentified to this day had managed to successfully check in a suitcase containing the explosive device on the ill-fated Air India flight on the Montreal-London-Mumbai-Delhi route in June 1985.
“Perhaps, the Go First driver in the third shuttle bus could have communicated to the airline security regarding the waiting passengers. So, there was communication failure here as well. But what is more glaring is that while the first step was done properly, the third and the fourth steps were rushed through before the closing of the aircraft door,” the head of flight operations opined.
“The main culprit is thus the security staff at the aircraft door that failed to reconcile the number of checked-in passengers with the actual number on board,” he elaborated.
Contrary to what some other media reports may have insinuated, in this instance, the responsibility does not lie with external agencies such as the airport operator or air traffic control (ATC), or the regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) as none are involved in the check-in and reconciliation process.
“Go First not only did not follow the procedures but they released the flight with the baggage of 55 passengers without realising they were missing on board! This was in complete violation of laid down security norms and shouldn’t have happened in the first place,” emphasised Lumba.
Of the four shuttle buses pressed into service that day, only the first, second and fourth buses reached the flight. Passengers in the third bus, who were stuck on the tarmac for about an hour, watched in utter disbelief and horror as the Go First flight took off without them.
Following the incident, DGCA sought an immediate response from Go First where it has prima facie emerged that the carrier failed to comply with the regulations specified under Civil Aviation Requirement (CAR).
Holding the Mumbai-headquartered low-cost carrier responsible for maintaining adequate arrangements for ground handling, preparation of load and trim sheet, flight dispatch, and passenger and cargo handling, the DGCA said the carrier was additionally required to ensure that all ground staff engaged in passenger handling underwent periodic training on sensitisation, courtesy, behaviour and procedures.
“However, in the instant case, multiple mistakes such as lack of proper communication, co-ordination, reconciliation and confirmation have resulted in a highly avoidable situation,” DGCA said in a statement.
For its part, Go First offered an unconditional apology for the incident. The affected passengers were accommodated on Delhi-bound flights operated by other carriers. Go First has also offered all affected passengers one free ticket for travel on any domestic sector for the next 12 months from the date of the incident.
“The airline has initiated an inquiry into the incident and the matter is being investigated. All concerned staff has been taken off the roster pending an inquiry. The airline has also issued a notice to the ground handling agency,” the airline said in a statement shared with BT.
It has to file a detailed reply with DGCA by January 24.
“We have already issued a notice to the concerned airline. We shall take appropriate action against those found responsible,” DGCA Arun Kumar told BT.
It is hoped that the resulting action will compel carriers in the world’s fastest-growing aviation market to always be mindful of the laid down regulatory protocols in the best interests of passenger safety and security.
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