Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Sikkim flight cancellation: Is fog from dam-locked Teesta the reason?

Gangtok: Was bad weather the main reason behind the cancellation of the SpiceJet flight, which left 40 Sikkim-bound passengers in Delhi? Turns out, the reason was slightly different.

To understand the issue, EastMojo spoke with experts.

The ‘bad weather’ issue can be blamed partially on the dam-locked Teesta, more specifically, the confluence of Teesta and Rangeet river in the southern Hills of Sikkim bordering the Darjeeling Hills, which is the route of the flights. While the swift-flowing Teesta may have lesser fog, a dam-locked Teesta creates more fog. This, coupled with bad weather conditions on October 9, meant it was nearly impossible to land at the Pakyong Airport.

The Airports Authority of India (AAI) director Ramatanu Shah highlighted how a mere 100 air metres after entering the Eastern Himalaya in the Darjeeling-Sikkim region, the flights are marred by fog and mist from Teesta.

“There was about 900-metre visibility, but our requirement is 2,400 metres. We face problems in the Teesta valley area where the fog from Teesta tends to dampen the visibility. The fog tends to come towards Pakyong and go further eastwards, which the fog sees as the route for its escape after rising from the river. We are bound to have an airport at a location that is open and not bound by hills. Now, the fog also tends to take the same route. This is 20 degrees South East Sikkim which is the route for our incoming flights,” Shah told EastMojo.

The AAI Director also highlighted ongoing correspondence with the Union Civil Aviation Ministry to provide better visibility routes or better weather updates in real-time. “The assessment of the concerns of both the airport as well as airlines on take-off and landing will come to fruition preferably in November when senior officials from the Union are coming to survey the location. But we cannot afford to miss a landing or take off due to mere 100 metres of fog. We cannot fight against nature, and the reason tourists come to Sikkim is ideally to see clouds that inevitably are made by the same fog. So this is obviously a concern,” he added.

Gopinath Raha, Meteorological Centre Director, Sikkim, asserted that better equipment cannot be a solution. He stated, “(The) airport in Pakyong that morning (October 9) had 200-400 metres visibility. Other times as well, the visibility is around only 600 metres. There was mist at the airport on Saturday. The requirement for Pakyong airport is 2,400 metres, while the ideal flight visibility is 5,000 metres. The change was made in January this year. Sikkim’s climate at 5,000 metres is difficult for visibility. The river fog is a concern. South-Western fog tends to go directly to the runway of the airport. We cannot control the fog as it is natural. But the approach can be changed, maybe to the opposite side. It can also happen from the north, but landing would be a concern there at the airport. It is their concern, and they would know better.”

Talking about providing real-time data, the Meteorological Director said, “We give the trend of the weather forecast, but the onus on reviving the flight at a later date lies on airlines. We give multiple data in real-time. If the flight is bound at 10 am for Pakyong, we give data at 8:30 am or 9 am at intervals of 30 minutes.”

Speaking with EastMojo, SpiceJet station manager Sandip Narang asserted that October 9 witnessed bad weather conditions in Sikkim. “The flights operate on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. There might have been a miscommunication of the day too, passengers come on a different date than their scheduled flight. It was a planned cancellation due to the weather. In October, we cancelled only one flight: on October 9.”

AAI Director Ramatanu Shah asserted that passengers bound from Pakyong to Delhi didn’t face much harassment. “When it gets cancelled from Delhi, we cannot know if there was any harassment. They may have opted for Bagdogra the next day. But unless they come to the airport, we cannot declare that these many passengers faced trouble,” he added.

12/10/21 Pankaj Dhungel/EastMojo

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