Indian aviation: Still flying dangerously

The airlines have to have their own safety manuals and proce-dures which is called ‘line maintenance’.

Aviation worldwide is the safest form of transportation. This is so because the international regulator and aviation law maker, International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), has evolved over the years an excellent framework of rules and regulation for aviation safety called standards and recommended practices as well as procedures and guidelines. Further, the ICAO conducts safety audits of each country.

However, with the recent announcement by Director General of Civil Aviation with regard to the deteriorating financial position of some of our airlines, the issue of their safety has again come into focus. It may be stated that while there is no provision in the Aircraft Act or its Rules to conduct such an audit, however, having conducted it and found it wanting we need to consider the situation in its entirety.

Fastest growth
Having said that, we need to look at our own record to see how we are faring. There is no doubt that Indian aviation has had the fastest growth in the last two decades. The massive growth in passenger traffic, number of aircraft, number of landings in metro airports, congestion in the air brings in their own problems. Have we managed to keep up with this? In this sector there are three parties that need to be scrutinised. These is the regulator -- in our context the DGCA -- the airlines who need to maintain their planes and the airports, including air traffic management. An examination will prove that all three of them have been inadequate to keep up with the growth.

It was only about two years back that the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) informed India of its intention to downgrade it in its safety from Category I to II, which means India joins the rank of some small African countries. An ICAO report on India’s safety audit also left much to be desired. As a result of hectic activities by the civil aviation ministry, the FAA was persuaded not to downgrade Indian safety and at the prime minister’s level about 400  technical posts were created in one go of which only about 10 per cent have filled up as yet . This means that the inspection staff of DGCA is woefully inadequate even now.

We now come to the issue of airports. The airports in the top four metro cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore take about 80 per cent of the traffic. But traffic management remains outdated and not as per ICAO standards/recommended practices. We still don’t have a flow management system and our radars between metro cities do not provide seamless connectivity. As a result aircraft have to circle around these airports during peak time before landing permission is given. This also involves safety risks.

Lastly, we come to safety precautions conducted by the airlines. The airlines have to have their own safety manuals and procedure which is called ‘line maintenance’. The DGCA is supposed to check them at random and also by a schedule. Inadequacy or carelessness by airlines is what the DGCA inspectors are to check and are empowered to issue notices. However, with shortage of technical staff with DGCA, it is left more to Airlines to conduct its own safety checks. While it is equally important for airlines to maintain its safety requirements, however, whenever airlines go into a financial trouble there is always the possibility of safety being compromised to cut corners. But this cannot be generalised leading to a panic amongst the public.

The state of affairs in the countries airlines and the DGCA need to be examined. Besides shortage of staff there are cases of collusion and corrupt practices in various aspects of DGCA functioning which impinge upon safety. The recent cases of fraudulent issue of licenses by DGCA office or failure to pass alcohol test by pilots in many instances show the current level of callousness, collusion and corruption which impact safety. While attempts are being made to improve the system by the Ministry and DGCA, without adequate technical support this will be difficult. To add to these growing losses of some airlines will add to the issues of aviation safety. It is therefore, necessary at this stage to look into all these aspects, take steps to bring aviation industry to financial healthy state by rationalising the tax structure, fill up the technical vacancies in the office of DGCA and solve the issues pertaining to air traffic management. A new minister has taken over as a full time charge. He needs to look into all these aspects without any delay.

(The writer is chairman of International Foundation of Aviation, Aerospace and Development, India Chapter)

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