Air safety hits rough weather

Serious long-term steps are required to overcome downgrading of India's safety ranking

Air safety hits rough weather

The mood was tense at the New Delhi headquarters of the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) on January 31.

Officials were waiting anxiously for the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) decision on safety ranking, as they were not sure whether they would pull it off with last-minute decisions like inducting more safety experts. But the FAA was clearly unimpressed as they bluntly showed India the red card.

After a mad scramble in the past few months to meet the shortcomings, India found itself in ignominy, downgraded to the risky Category II along with 10 other countries, including Bangladesh, Ghana and obscure ones like Curacao. To India’s embarrassment, others such as Bermuda, Suriname were among over 70 countries which found themselves in the good books of US aviation regulator. India had achieved the FAA Category 1 status in 1997.

But, this is not the first time that India faced a downgrade. Five years ago, the FAA was on the verge of dumping India in the rogues’ gallery due to an under-staffed DGCA, India’s aviation watch-dog. The government then sanctioned recruitment of around 500 personnel and managed to retain Category 1 status.

Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh was “disappointed” with the FAA, as India had “fulfilled” all but two of the 31 ‘shortcomings’ pointed out by the FAA. Singh says India will fulfil the unaccomplished tasks – recruiting more safety officers and imparting training – by next month, an optimism not shared by experts. The FAA did acknowledge that India took steps to address concerns raised after its inspections in September and December 2013, saying it made “significant” progress to redress issues identified in the first assessment. It went on to say that, it looks forward to continued progress by India to comply with the internationally-mandated regulatory standards.

A senior official in the Civil Aviation Ministry told Deccan Herald that they have reasons to be upset as they were racing against time taking short-term and long-term measures to satisfy aviation agencies. They knew an FAA action could have a domino effect. Already the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore has stepped up ramp inspections on the Indian aircraft though it has not imposed any restrictions on Indian carriers. The European Union’s Air Safety Committee is also likely to discuss the issue next month.

Announcing the decision after a reassessment in December, the FAA had said that the DGCA does not comply with the safety standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the aviation safety auditor. The FAA initiated a review after the ICAO audit in December 2012 identified deficiencies in the Indian regulator. The American agency assesses on a uniform basis civil aviation authorities that operate or have applied to operate aircraft to the US. This assessment determines whether foreign civil aviation authorities are meeting ICAO safety standards.

The FAA pointed out that there was insufficient number of flight operations inspectors in India and that airworthiness officers do not have required training to handle different types of aircraft. According to the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (CAPA), a think tank in the sector, the DGCA has recruited just 67 full-time employees and 62 consultants when the vacancies were a whopping 528. A Parliamentary Standing Committee report tabled on February 6 says the manpower strength of DGCA declined by over 40 per cent compared to 2005-06 though passenger load, freight traffic and aircraft movement doubled during this period.

Kapil Kaul, CEO (South Asia) of CAPA, says shortage of manpower at the DGCA has been a recurring issue since the first ICAO audit in 1997. “At that time, the market was small enough to be manageable and corrective action could have been taken but instead the issue has been neglected by successive administrations”.

In its defence, DGCA said it had completed foreign licence validation and refresher training and finalised a methodology for determining flight operations inspector staffing requirements. It also publicised the 2012 ICAO audit findings, claiming that India has an effective implementation of 79.1 per cent, above the global average of 61 per cent.

Angry officials said aviation incidents in the US were higher than India since 2009 - India had two accidents involving scheduled commercial aircraft while the US had 105.
The US action does not mean that Indian airlines are altogether dangerous. It was an assessment of the capabilities of DGCA in conducting regular safety checks and audit of airlines. The assessment brought to light India’s under-preparation in dealing with safety issues after it opened the skies for more private participation. The operations had witnessed an increase with more airlines, more services and more passengers but on the ground, the experts to check safety parameters were less than half of what was required!

India could still fly its planes to the US – the existing 21 services a week by Air India and seven by Jet Airways. But the catch is that the Indian carriers could be prevented from expanding operations in the US or collaborating with American airlines. There would also be more stringent FAA surveillance on aircraft of other Indian operators who will not be allowed to launch any new international services. US-based United Airlines and American Airlines have suspended their code sharing agreements - an arrangement between two or more airlines to share same flight -with Jet Airways after the downgrade. The AI and Jet did not respond to emails seeking their reaction.
“The decision will have an impact on the two Indian carriers. There will be a domino effect as more markets will be under pressure to act. The general brand image of these airlines will suffer,” Rohit Bansal, CEO of Hammurabi and Solomon Consulting, told Deccan Herald.

Authorities may be taking swift action but India is staring at a possible long innings in Category II as it took considerable time for countries to get back into the club. The experience of Philippines and Indonesia may not be a solace for India - Philippines is yet to re-enter Category I after being banished five years ago and Indonesia is waiting for over six years. Israel took four years to re-enter the group. India must keep in mind that knee-jerk reactions will not help in the long run and such actions would be detrimental even as more investment is being pumped into the sector. What is needed is a pro-active approach to deal with the situation.

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