Audit of DGCA: keep your fingers crossed

No speech or article about Indian civil aviation is complete these days without the claim that “India will be the third largest civil aviation market globally in the next decade or so”. However, the claim is like the story of the brawny guy who managed to lift up a just-born elephant calf and then deluded himself into believing that if he picked up the calf every morning, he would one day be able to accomplish the feat of lifting it up a full-grown elephant through a daily marginal increase in his capability. The fallacy is self-evident, but apparently not to the Indian establishment which continues to overlook the pitfalls that confront civil aviation. Unless there is a fundamental change of approach, Indian civil aviation is set to plateau out much before it reaches the currently projected podium position.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the UN body keeping watch on air safety, had planned to audit Indian civil aviation in March this year, but the Direct General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) requested that the audit be deferred to November. The request is innocuous, but raises some disconcerting questions about India’s past performance in audits (and the possible outcome of this one).

India was first audited by ICAO under its Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme (USAOP) in 2006, followed by an ICAO Coordinated Validation Mission, which falls short of an audit, in 2012, after which India was placed very near the foot of a list of nations audited. This was followed by a full-fledged audit in November-December 2015, which found that India performed below the global average in legislation, organisation, accident investigation and aerodromes, while faring better than the global average in licensing, operations, airworthiness and air navigation. The full details of the audit and the DGCA action taken report are not in the public domain as an RTI application was reportedly rebuffed thus, “The information is outside the purview of the RTI Act”.

However, the constant and plaintive moans of most stakeholders in civil aviation give us some indication that all is not well there. The DGCA has existed for nine decades (since the establishment of the Civil Aviation Department in 1927) but is yet to get a full grasp of its assigned tasks and roles. Its budget has grown in recent years from Rs 28 crore to Rs 230 crore this year, but 337 posts out of a total of 1,320 remain vacant. Since 2011, there has been talk of replacing the DGCA with a Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) but this reform has been put on the backburner by the present government. Instead, efforts are on to give DGCA itself more financial, punitive and administrative powers so that it can improve its functioning.

One of the areas that has remained attention in past audits is the shortfall of Flying Operations Inspectors (FOIs) -- the leading-edge inspectors actually checking out flying operations. The required number is around 75 (approximately one per 10 aircraft) but it has been a problem getting pilots to work as FOIs as the salary on offer is ridiculously low as compared to what a pilot could earn with an airline. Also, there was internal resistance from within DGCA against paying an FOI salary higher than everybody else in the organisation, including the director-general himself. The problem has now been solved and FOIs are being offered the salaries their professional experience deserves. However, the total number of FOIs is still likely to be short of the requirement by the time the audit takes place, especially in the segment of business aviation FOIs.

Another weak area is the functioning of Aircraft Accident Investigation Board (AAIB), which was established in July 2012 as a result of audit pressure but has not functioned as the independent investigative agency that it was intended to be. Even now, it is headed by DGCA officials working on deputation, and efforts are on to hire a permanent director general and staff. The AAIB’s objectivity in accident investigations is thus under a question mark.

The audit will take place from November 6 to 16 and, while previous audits have only assessed the DGCA’s performance as a safety overseer, this audit team plans to visit the industry as well to get a deeper insight into the functioning of Indian civil aviation. Possibly, the team’s visits to the field will also expose it to the limitations of Indian infrastructure. One hopes that, being a global agency, ICAO will focus largely on international operations and the fact that our regional infrastructure is underdeveloped, that two-thirds of our air traffic is concentrated in the metros, and that Delhi and Mumbai are already at 80% capacity will escape the audit team’s attention.

One hopes that the ICAO audit does not indict India on a major issue since that would have the potential of harming the expansion plans of Air India and Jet Airways, the long-haul ambitions of Indigo, and international ambitions of new airlines like Vistara. If India scrapes through the audit without a serious blemish, it would then be the right time to introspect on how serious we are about fostering civil aviation through genuine reform.

(The writer is a former chief operations officer of a commercial airline)

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