Aviation safety issues: Damocles' sword hangs over DGCA

Aviation safety issues: Damocles' sword hangs over DGCA

The upgrading of the Indian Director General Civil Aviation (DGCA) by US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to Category I recently brought to an end an ignominious and humiliating period for Indian civil aviation.

The downgrade in January 2014 had been the climactic culmination of events dating back to December 2012 when an International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) audit of the DGCA dishonourably placed it amongst 13 worst performing aviation regulatory agencies in the world.

This prompted a re-audit by ICAO in August 2013, followed in quick succession by an FAA audit in September 2013 under the International Aviation Safety Assessment (IASA) programme. The DGCA managed to scrape through both these audits, bruised but breathing, and a review five months later brought the entirely forgettable tumble to Category II safety status. These chronological events are iterated only to highlight the fact that somehow, despite adequate warnings and threats, the DGCA could not outrun its bureaucratic, cumbersome style of functioning to get its act together to aggressively and conclusively address the numerous observations in successive audits.

The two major shortcomings pointed out during the downgrading by the FAA audit were lack of training of technical staff of the DGCA and a critical shortfall of Flight Operations Inspectors (FOIs) on the DGCA’s payroll. This observation was based on the fact that traditionally, the DGCA has only had FOIs seconded from airlines to work with the DGCA for audits and inspections but drawing salaries from their respective parent airlines.
Given the nature of their work which involves airline surveillance, clearing airline pilots as aircraft examiners and instructors, inspection of operational manuals and documentation, the arrangement of secondment was found highly objectionable to ICAO and FAA.

However, the DGCA’s reluctance to hire FOIs on its payroll results from a reason steeped in the bureaucratic culture that has flourished in the organisation, in a large part owing to the fact that it has been headed (barring one exception) by an IAS officer. The qualifying requirements to be an FOI include a flying pilot’s license and substantial experience as an airline pilot. Such a candidate would come with a very high salary tag, much higher than any of the government officials working in the DGCA, including the DG himself.

Interestingly, only one FOI had ever been borne on the payroll of the DGCA before these shameful audit findings compelled hiring of 72 FOIs (based on a thumb rule of one inspector per 10 aircraft to be audited). To meet this requirement, a sanction was obtained for hiring 75 FOIs but the maximum strength reached was around two thirds this number. The FOIs that did come on board have been working towards the objectives they were hired for but informal inputs convey the impression that all is not well between them and the core DGCA officialdom. All files from FOIs need to be routed through established administrative levels of officials who do not have deep understanding of flight operations (as a pilot does).

Resentment abound

Understandably, there are delays and equally understandably there is resentment amongst the FOIs about the need for superfluous routing of files. This antagonism is manifest in other interactions between FOIs and other staff. During the third week of May, the DGCA asked 20 FOIs to move on permanent posting out of Delhi at short notice. Promptly, 13 FOIs tendered applications stating that if their posting orders were not cancelled those applications could be considered as their resignations.

In dismay, the DGCA was forced to retract their posting orders and is looking for candidates to fill the posts outside Delhi afresh. The organisation is getting a feel of the high headed attitude of pilots that the airline industry has to live with due to a perennial shortage of qualified pilots in India. It will take a lot of effort and kid glove handling of the FOIs to retain adequate numbers, which are necessary not only for acceptable safety oversight but also to satisfy future audits by the ICAO.

Opprobrium by the ICAO leads other safety agencies to raise interrogative glances at the DGCA. Following strictures by ICAO, FAA had audited India and, significantly, even Japan had the temerity to demand an audit of the DGCA in 2013 (a move that was thwarted). The European Aviation Safety Agency has been aggressively demanding briefs from the DGCA on steps taken to remedy ICAO and FAA audit observations. The audit report by FAA that upgraded the DGCA in April this year mentioned imperatives like building up the FOI strength to 72, recertifying all (scheduled and non-scheduled) aircraft operators and training organisations.

While the recertification process is on at a feverish pace and may be completed on time, FOI induction and retention remain nebulous. The ICAO intends carrying out a fresh audit of the DGCA in November 2015; the next six months will bear witness, as will an anxious civil aviation community, to what the DGCA achieves in terms of integrating FOIs completely and usefully into its organisational fabric; a failure to do so could lead to the DGCA being besmirched again with a downgrade.

One tragic fall out of an ICAO down grade is that although the international body does not audit airlines (its auditee is the DGCA), if the DGCA is found wanting as a responsible custodian of safety performance of civil aviation, the airlines pay the price. During the 14 months that the DGCA suffered the Category II status in safety, no Indian airline was permitted to start a new international route, especially to the US. The impending audit in November hangs over the DGCA (and our airlines) like a Damocles’ sword; one hopes that DGCA gets its act together before that.

(The writer is former Chief Operations Officer of an airline)

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