Waiting for FAA nod

Civil Aviation Audit

An IndiGo Airlines Airbust A320 aircraft and JetKonnect Boeing 737 aircraft taxi past an Air India Airbus A321 aircraft at Mumbai's Chhatrapathi Shivaji International Airport. REUTERS

Indian civil aviation waited with heightened anticipation as a US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) team descended upon the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) during the third week of July for an audit under its International Aviation Safety Assessment (IASA) programme. The idea of being audited by another nation’s regulator should by itself have been a cause for indignation but it is hard for India (or for any other nation) to stand up to the US and resist an audit which it insists upon.

IASA is designed for all countries with airlines that operate, or seek to operate, into the US, or code-share with a US airline. The assessment determines whether or not a foreign civil aviation authority is compliant with the safety oversight standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) — a UN body (and not FAA regulations). Those that meet the ICAO safety requirements are placed in Category 1, and those that do not, in Category 2.

India had been placed in Category 1 in 1997 but after an audit in 2013, FAA, citing deficiencies in 33 areas, including shortage of skilled manpower and frail safety surveillance regulations, downgraded India ignominiously to Category 2. The status was restored only in 2015.

Thus, an FAA audit, the third since 2013, was a cause for trepidation, especially as it came barely months after the ICAO audited the Indian regulator and flagged some issues. ICAO carried out a full audit under its Universal Safety Oversight Programme in November 2017 and a team visited India again in February 2018.

Although the details of the ICAO audit report are not in the public domain, it had lowered India’s score on a nominal scorecard standardising ICAO audit findings, from 65.82% to 57.44%.

In five of the eight areas audited, India was placed below the global average in terms of effective implementation while in one, it is at the average level. Indeed, India tumbled to a position below several member nations, including Pakistan and Nepal.

One of the main reasons for this was ICAO’s serious objection to Airports Authority of India (AAI), which is the provider of air traffic control services, also being vested with the responsibility of regulatory and safety oversight in their respect. ICAO’s audit findings in this regard had been conveyed to DGCA in April and the separation of powers of service providers and regulators was considered inevitable and imminent.

However, the pace at which our establishment worked towards it was a bit slow. On the day that the FAA audit began in July, in a late evening briefing, the Minister of State for Civil Aviation and other ministry and DGCA officials were at pains to emphasise that there were no safety concerns as far as Indian civil aviation is concerned.

Forestalling FAA queries on the ICAO observation on air traffic control services, it was announced at the briefing that AAI would be providing only air traffic control services while regulation of air traffic controllers would be done by the DGCA. It was also announced that fresh and formal licences would be given to air traffic controllers by the DGCA starting early next year, possibly by February or March.

What the FAA team’s reaction was to this briefing, and what the team found during its audit, is unknown. The DGCA announced that the audit team had found everything “satisfactory”, but that had been the announcement in the wake of the ICAO audit of 2017 also (which found many shortcomings). That there were some observations is evident from the announcement by the DGCA that FAA’s final report will be received within 30 days and that thereafter FAA would visit India again (in 65 days’ time) to assess the actions taken to rectify observations. So, a definitive sigh of relief is still two months away.

The FAA visit flags the need to introspect on some of the frailties of our civil aviation regulation mechanism. Stakeholders agree that there have been noteworthy improvements in the manner the DGCA works, but the fundamental weaknesses remain. As the DGCA works under the administrative control of the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA), its autonomy is a bit constrained.

A long-standing proposal to create an independently administered and financed Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has been talked about and even tabled in Parliament but is yet to be legislated.

MoCA and DGCA continue to be dominated by general administrators (with the latter headed by an IAS officer who could have had no prior exposure to aviation) and lateral entry of aviation professionals is not a possibility in the near future despite a vast bank of retired professionals.

Even the entry of pilots as Flight Operations Inspectors (FOIs) was a bone of contention as their expectations of salaries and perks exceeded those of the DGCA hierarchy right up to the DG himself. For years, we had no FOI for this reason. It is only when ICAO/FAA audits forced the issue that we finally hired them.

Manpower shortages in other areas also continue to afflict the DGCA; this situation will improve possibly only when DGCA (or CAA) have adequate autonomy and budgetary powers to recruit adequate numbers. With steadily increasing moves to migrate licensing, certification and other processes to online processing, the DGCA is showing its intent to become more professional and more user-friendly.

It will take some more time for it to completely break away from its bureaucratic culture and gain the full confidence of Indian civil aviation stakeholders. The next logical step would be to preclude discomfiting observations from audits — be they conducted by ICAO or FAA.

(The writer is a retired Group Captain of the Indian Air Force)

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