Challenges for Indian Civil Aviation

The Indian civil aviation industry is a complex, hyper-dynamic, high-tech behemoth, where there is zero tolerance for error

Issue: 3 / 2018By Group Captain C.J. Weir (Retd)Photo(s): By Karthik Kumar / SP Guide PubnsIllustration(s): By Anoop Kamath

The heartening news is that in the near future, one travelling by air in India will find significantly better air connectivity covering larger number of destinations and more options. There will also be an increase in the number of airlines operating each with larger fleet of aircraft. The Indian civil aviation industry is a complex, hyper-dynamic, high-tech behemoth, where there is zero tolerance for error. It has spawned, like most other industries, its own groups, clique’s and power centres that at times pull in directions that have a detrimental effect on the entire industry. This article is aimed at bringing into focus some of the serious issues that confront present day civil aviation in India and to help the appropriate authority in ensuring better efficiency with higher standards of safety.

KEY ISSUES

Paramount amongst all issues is the one of air safety. In the past few years, there have been a number of fatal accidents snuffing out hundreds of innocent lives. Many of these accidents could have been avoided if as the planners, managers and regulators had a better understanding of the dynamics of the man-machine interface. The airspace in India is going to see an increase in the number of aircraft flying. Hence, flying operations, air space management, arrivals and departures at airports, must be made more efficient for safe operations.

The next most important issue is one of finance. We at times are hesitant to acknowledge that financial viability is essential for all concerned. Once this is accepted, optimisation of resources will become the normal way of life, as would competence and efficiency.

The Ministry of Civil Aviation needs to revisit the Civil Aviation Policy to ensure that all the pillars are strengthened to keep the structure from toppling

THE PILLARS

The Government of India (GoI) is making valiant attempts at addressing the issues involved and needs the support of individuals and companies who have the knowledge, but do not carry the baggage of vested interests. The planners and decision makers have to face the harsh reality of dealing with a relatively unknown subject and with those who have the knowledge and experience, unable at times, to break the shackles of their own affiliations. Presently in India, the base of the civil aviation industry, rests on six pillars that are:

  • Ministry of Civil Aviation MoCA).
  • Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA).
  • Airport Authority of India (AAI).
  • Scheduled airlines, regional airlines and non-scheduled operators.
  • Flying training organisations.
  • MRO organisations.

A quick look at the ‘pillars’ will highlight some of the more pertinent issues that need to be addressed.

ANALYSIS

MoCA. In India, the organisation structure for control of civil aviation flows from the MoCA, GoI. The MoCA needs to revisit the Civil Aviation Policy to ensure that all the pillars are strengthened to keep the structure from toppling. The focus should be to organise and examine each of the ‘pillars’ in the context of the ‘key Issues’ of air safety and finance. Each of these pillars needs to be closely examined to assess and ensure that they can perform their tasks so that a conducive atmosphere is created for the anticipated growth of the sector. At the end of the day, it is the right of the citizens of India to be given a world class aviation sector which is recognised as an ‘engine of growth’. There is also a need for those associated with aviation to shed the “Free lunch Culture” to a ‘Value for Money’ approach. The aviation sector is growing in India and the MoCA must ensure that all the ‘Pillars’ are competent to play their role to ensure that the many issues that fuel growth, are addressed. To achieve this, it is strongly recommended that the MoCA form an ‘independent’ core team to work directly under it to review the Civil Aviation Policy. This team or advisory group, can be made up of retired personnel from the Indian Air Force (IAF) who are recognised experts in aviation, experienced individuals General Aviation and the Airlines. It is imperative that a conducive environment be created and this can be done if a holistic approach is adopted free of vested interests. This advisory group could also be entrusted with the task of coordination and policy implementation.

DGCA. The DGCA is the regulator empowered to ensure compliance with rules as also facilitate and promote civil aviation. This is a crucial mandate and the DGCA plays a vital role in every aspect of a company operating an aeroplane. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the United States (US) had downgraded India’s aviation safety ranking to Category 2 and after 14 months the ranking was restored to Category 1. The implications of the downgrade were serious and the aviation industry is still not out of the woods. This is a bitter pill to swallow for any self-respecting person associated with Indian Civil Aviation. Some positive steps have been taken to improve the general appearance of the offices in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai, which was required, but this is only cosmetic. We need to improve substantially and we need to start the introspection from the top. To match the growth in the Indian aviation sector, it must be ensured that the Regulator is competent to deal with all the issues that comprise this complex activity. Both the key issues of air safety and financial viability can be addressed only by the regulator if it has a clear insight into the different ‘pillars’ that it is going to regulate. It becomes important then to examine the functioning of the DGCA and to suggest measures to enhance its efficiency. An area that needs serious attention is the issue of manning. Personnel manning key posts must have the right qualifications and hands-on experience to deal with specialist issues. It needs to be understood that aviation and its many branches are all very specialised fields. Therefore, ONLY specialist personnel with the right qualifications and relevant experience must occupy key posts. The other area where the DGCA needs to enhance is its capability as a ‘Facilitator’. Therefore, the DGCA must increase its footprint as a guide and mentor of the aviation sector in addition to its role of being a regulator.

AWAITING ITS TURN: IF CHALLENGES ARE TAKEN CARE OF, INDIA’S CIVIL AVIATION WILL SEE PHENOMENAL GROWTH

AAI. The AAI is an autonomous body tasked with providing airfield infrastructure, airspace management and rescue. The AAI functions under the MoCA, however, due its ‘autonomy’ there is a tendency to work in isolation. Not enough attention is paid to airspace management, enroute and at terminal areas. The safe absorption of higher traffic density will be achieved when we move from manual (procedural) control to real-time radar control in the entire spectrum of an aircraft’s flight. AAI’s focus, unfortunately, has been on improving mostly the airport terminal buildings and not in procurement of equipment which will enhance operational efficiency. A large quantum of funds has been spent on airport buildings without any study done on passenger flows and demand/supply issues. This skewed prioritisation of allocation of scarce resources has led to neglect of critical areas. To cater to the projected expansion in density of air traffic, the ground environment in terms of radar coverage from departure to arrival, must be put in place. Procurement of route and terminal radars, non-precision and precision approach aids must be given top priority. It is then that the environment will be created which will allow a larger number of aircraft to operate in a given area at any given point in time with the desired levels of safety.

Only the pilots trained in India are monitored by the DGCA, pilots trained abroad are not and some rush through pilot training in as little as six months!!!

The Airlines. Airlines in India operate in a free market, competitive environment where there is, at times, a curtailment of choices. The top level managements of the Airlines need to understand the various complexities of operating in India. Choice of top executives has traditionally been restricted to foreign nationals. A large number of them have under-performed mainly due to a lack of understanding of the nuances of this diverse region. Indian executives have now been exposed to global trends and have the benefit of decades of experience and must become the choice of the promoters. The airlines need to wean themselves away from foreign aircrew as well. This can only be done if the promoters take this issue seriously. Crew training and their progression must form an important ingredient in the daily task of the management to ensure that Indian crew are trained to move up the professional ladder. The Airlines must also be required to show the appropriate authority their business plans, funding and reserves of funds before approval is given. At the moment this is being done to some degree, however, both the airline and the approving authority need to give more attention to this. This issue is highlighted with the collapse of some airlines and more starkly with fresh start-ups shutting down within months of commencing operations. The airlines now need to capitalise on the robust growth in passenger traffic, new sectors and international routes. Ticket pricing needs a fresh look with the concept of dynamic ticket prices examined and seen against fixed prices based on break even costs per seat kilometre. The concept of ‘Low Cost”’must be seen against ‘Value for Money’. The aviation sector has been done serious long term damage by some airlines resorting to selling the pipe dream of freebies. Most of those airlines have had to fold up suffering major financial losses. This pitfall must be avoided and all airlines need to convince the authorities that for long term sustainable operations, there can be no ‘free lunches’ and therefore, realistic fixed ticket prices with no surge pricing, may be the route to go. The Indian air traveler wants quality service and does not mind paying the right price for it. The airlines also need to train their staff to be more passenger conscious. It would not be difficult for the air traveler to understand that safe, regular and quality service will mean cost and it needs to be paid for.

Flying Training Organisations (FTO). Presently, pilots in India are trained all over the globe. Pilots trained in the US have to fly 1,500 hours before they can join any airline there. However, if they come to India, they can join an airline immediately after completing their training. Only the pilots trained in India are monitored by the DGCA, pilots trained abroad are not and some rush through pilot training in as little as six months!!! These anomalies need to be remedied, if you train in the US then follow their system in its totality. The FTO’s in India need to constantly keep improving the training with emphasis also placed on flight instructors with high standards who can ensure that the ‘Right Stuff’ qualifies from their institutes.

Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO). MRO facilities are wide ranging and cover a large variety of maintenance activities. Considering the number of aircraft operating and the ones on order, the demand for routine and line servicing will be large. An overview is required to be taken to provide these facilities and probably the route to go is the public-private partnership (PPP) model as government stakes will bring along many benefits. It must be kept in mind that these are projects with huge investments and over long periods of time. By having government partnership, off-set clauses, transfer of technology, job creation and many more core issues can be addressed in one broad sweep.

CONCLUSION

The aviation sector is ready to leap. The GoI has shown keen intent and recognised the potential. What is required now is for the MoCA to identify and form an advisory group which will revisit the Civil Aviation Policy, identify key activities and most importantly monitor and oversee implementation. The focus should be the interplay between the ‘pillars’ wherein all progress and grow together, moving towards a common goal. This activity is vital to ensure all agencies pull in the right direction avoiding the pitfall of narrow-minded partisanship. Strict government regulation is required to ensure that no foreign national works in India. We create as many facilities within the country as possible and if those are available domestically the law prohibits going abroad.