Need to Stop the Drift

The downgrade by the FAA will undoubtedly generate serious concerns among the travelling public about the safety standards of Indian carriers.

Issue: 3 / 2014By Air Marshal (Retd) B.K. PandeyPhoto(s): By Anoop Kamath

In the month of January this year, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the US downgraded India’s civil aviation safety rating to Category II status on account of failure on the part of the Indian Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) to put in place a proper mechanism of safety oversight. As per the FAA, the DGCA did not have on its strength flight operations inspectors in numbers proportionate to the number of civil aircraft registered in India. Also, airworthiness officers did not have the required level of training to handle different types of aircraft. During the last decade or so, the civil aviation industry grew in leaps and bounds but the level of manning at the DGCA remained unchanged.

After an inspection conducted five years ago, the FAA had warned India of the possibility of downgrade on account of the deficiencies in qualified manpower that existed even then. However, despite the government sanctioning a large number of vacancies, the numbers actually recruited was just 25 per cent of the required strength.

With this downgrade, India now is on a par with Bangladesh, Barbados, Ghana, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Philippines, Serbia, and Uruguay. Not a complimentary development for a nation emerging as a regional power and aspires to be a superpower in not too distant a future. As for its status in the global civil aviation industry, today, India ranks ninth. However, if rhetoric emanating frequently from the highest echelons of the civil aviation establishment is to be believed, over the next decade, India will graduate to the third slot. But at this point in time, the downgrade by the FAA will not only be a jolt to the airline industry but more importantly, a major source of national embarrassment.

The downgrade by the FAA will undoubtedly generate serious concerns among the travelling public about the safety standards of Indian carriers. However, the downgrade does not mean that airlines in India are unsafe. This does not reflect on the management, efficiency or safety standards of the Indian carriers per se, but entirely on the regulatory authority the DGCA. However, somewhat tragically, it is the airline industry especially the leading legacy carriers such as Air India and Jet Airways as well as even those low-cost airlines that are now venturing into the international segment, that will truly bear the brunt of this judgement by the FAA even while they are not to blame. The downgrade is symbolic of the incompetent management of the civil aviation industry at the level of the government and the indifferent approach of the political and bureaucratic leadership towards not only the airline industry but civil aviation as a whole in India.

While the private airlines in India have been engaged in an eternal struggle for survival in an extremely hostile business environment and several of these having perished in the process, the management of the national carrier, with collusion between the political leadership and bureaucratic establishment, have focused primarily on maximising private gains at the cost of the national carrier. The airline industry witnessed explosive growth in the wake of economic liberalisation in the early 1990s with a number of private carriers emerging on the scene. However, shackled in archaic policy framework, the industry was unable to sustain the momentum of growth. Despite the adversities, the second wave in the industry, spearheaded by the low-cost concept, began in the middle of the last decade and continues on its impressive growth trajectory especially after the upturn in the global economy after 2008. Unfortunately, the regulator of the civil aviation industry the DGCA, continued to stagnate with huge deficiencies of manpower for manning in critical areas such as flight operations inspection. The DGCA resorted to compromise by hiring on a temporary basis, pilots who were employed by the very airlines they were required to inspect as flight operations inspectors, a step regarded as most unethical and improper.

While the FAA had warned the DGCA of the possibility of downgrade if these inadequacies were not addressed soon enough. However, afflicted with bureaucratic lethargy that is characteristic of departments of the government of India, the DGCA took no effective steps to remedy the situation. Apart from the stigma associated with the downgrade, it is a sad reflection on the regulatory authority and by implication, disconcerting failure of governance.

The downgrade makes it abundantly clear that the DGCA has proved incapable of coping with the demands of the rapidly growing Indian civil aviation industry. Unless the Government of India puts in place without further delay an autonomous and fully empowered Civil Aviation Authority in its place, the Indian civil aviation industry will continue its aimless drift.