DGCA, safety, not fares, your remit

India’s aviation sector is in trouble and turmoil for various reasons. The sector has grown exponentially since the turn of the century, with the number of passengers increasing from 14 million in 2001 to 117 million in 2017. The number of flights also grew fast, with 100 flights taking off every hour today, against 67 in 2011, in line with the increase in the number of aircraft operated by airlines. Though the industry saw high growth and activity, its health has been far from sound, with all airlines weighed down by debt. The latest problem to hit the industry is the grounding of a number of aircraft for various reasons and the disruption of schedules it has caused. The Directorate-General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), the regulatory body for the sector, has tried to aggravate the problem rather than find a solution to it. 

The DGCA has told the airlines to increase the number of flights to prevent a rise in air fares. This is unwise counsel because fares should not be the top consideration for the regulator or the airlines. About one-fifth of the total fleet strength of the airlines is currently grounded for different reasons. Jet Airways is in deep financial trouble and had to ground 119 of its aircraft for non-payment of dues to lessees. Spice Jet has grounded 12 Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft after the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines plane of the same make. Other airlines also have grounded a number of aircraft for other reasons. This has certainly affected flight schedules. When schedules are cut, the demand-supply imbalance comes into play and fares tend to rise. Many routine flights and summer specials may be affected. Elections, too, tend to boost traffic and cancellations may cause inconvenience. But it is wrong on the part of the DGCA to cater to popular and political demands at the cost of more important considerations.

The most important consideration in the sector should be the safety of passengers. When a smaller number of aircraft are used to operate more schedules, safety may be compromised. Overuse may put the aircraft under stress. More flights at lower fares add to costs and make the services more unviable. It is not easy for airlines to suddenly increase the number of aircraft. Fares and passenger convenience are important, but safety is more important. The DGCA had failed to act promptly to ground the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft after the Ethiopian airlines crash. But it is proactive when it comes to fares and schedules, without thinking through the implications of its directive. As a regulator, its first remit is to ensure safety. The DGCA should get its priorities right. 

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