'Downgrade not a surprise, was avoidable'

INTERVIEW

Jitender Bhargava, former executive director of Air India, is an authoritative voice on the Indian aviation sector, having spent around 20 years in Air India. He spoke to Shemin Joy of Deccan Herald on the recent developments in the sector.

Excerpts:

Was the FAA decision to downgrade India
inevitable? Could we have avoided it?

The downgrade has come as a rude shock if viewed from the country’s standpoint but it has not really been a surprise for those who have kept themselves abreast of the developments. The downgrade could have been avoided had timely and corrective action been taken. The shortcomings should have been noticed by various persons who have helmed the DGCA and the civil aviation ministry including the minister. All of them are, in a way,  guilty of harming the interests of the sector through inaction.

Does the FAA decision mean that the regulatory framework on safety has come down?

Does it mean to a passenger that the flights he/she is taking may not be that safe?
The framework has not come down, it had been inadequate for years! When the industry was growing, the regulatory framework ought to have kept pace, grown likewise. The downgrade has no bearing on safety of flights but there are always individuals who are extra careful and believe that since Indian carriers are operating in an “unsafe” environment, other airlines should be preferred for international travel.

How inadequate training and lack of personnel is putting a question mark on safety? Who is to be blamed?

Downgrading does not mean that India is operating in an unsafe environment. But then, since in the aviation industry, even being 99.99 per cent safe is not good enough, regulatory checks have to be enforced. This can be achieved only if adequate number of trained personnel is available and checks are conducted as per pre-defined time-table. Periodic monitoring is important, in fact critical, for safe operation of flights. Government, in public interest, should fix the blame because safety has to be someone’s business. Not inducting personnel since 1998 or thereabout in DGCA or having heads oblivious to the role of the regulatory authority cannot be an alibi for not performing key functions that the regulatory body is supposed to… The audit conducted by DGCA in 2011-12 had shown that most airlines were lacking on various counts and not adhering to the rules in letter and spirit. I do not think very many corrective actions were initiated post that audit.

Where did the regulator err?

Lack of oversight has been cited as one of the main causes for downgrade. Unless there is regular intake of technically qualified personnel commensurate with growth in the industry, overseeing of flight operations of airlines will
suffer. This very basic aspect should not have been overlooked. If a repetition of what has happened has to be avoided in future, we must first have a professional to head the regulatory agency and he should be fully accountable for its functioning. Today, no such accountability exists.

Will the government’s proposal for a new regulator in place of DGCA help?

The Union Cabinet had accorded sanction for the Civil Aviation Authority to replace DGCA in July 2013. What has happened since then? Aren’t six months enough to operationalise a new agency? The desire to accomplish is clearly lacking. CCA will be successful if it is managed and run by professionals. Otherwise, it will only mean a change in nomenclature. I have little faith in the ability of the current system to reverse the trend. The practice of putting IAS officers to head the agency should go, they have failed to deliver so far. The tragic story of Air India’s descent in recent years should have served as a lesson.

When can we expect to be back in Category 1?

To regain the status of category 1 rating, DGCA needs to overcome the shortcomings pointed out. The minister’s optimism that this can be achieved by March-end is totally misplaced. It will take months to induct adequate number of people and train them. Even the 75 new posts (based on 2009 flight operations) sanctioned will not suffice as the industry has grown significantly since then.

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