The Times of India reports that air navigation services, could soon be hived off from the Airports Authority of India (AAI). In a move that would bring India in line with much of the world, these services could be free to upgrade, evolve and create another successful world-class corporation like the ONGC. Government plans are understood to be well on their way towards slimming AAI’s responsibilities.
Airport operators in most other countries don’t manage air traffic, explains a former civil aviation secretary, because they are generally private parties unlike India’s state-controlled AAI. A sensitive service such as navigation is generally not left in private hands, he says, adding the focus is skewed here. “The focus in India is on visible infrastructure such as airports and terminal buildings and little on the crucial navigation services which would lead to seamless air travel,” he says. Air Navigation Services (ANS) are responsible for roughly 2.8 million sq nautical miles of Indian airspace. With India increasingly seen as the hub between East and West, air traffic is expected to grow.
It is thought there is a conflict of interest between private airport operators in Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore and the government-owned AAI. ANS include communication, navigation, surveillance (CNS) and ATC. Civil aviation ministry sources admitted that “private operators felt AAI had undue advantage over them in levying various navigation charges.”
Separating air navigation from overall airport management would not come a day too soon. This was recommended by the Naresh Chandra panel. Three years ago, the Roy Paul Committee too had recommended it. It criticized AAI’s “recruitment and policies” for ATC which it described as “a unique and highly-specialised job, calling for a high degree of mental alertness.” It added that AAI was “not capable of attracting high-quality manpower here and there’s an urgent need for drastic changes.” These may be in the offing.
The ministry asked consultancy firm KPMG to suggest the way forward. It recommended taking air navigation away from AAI.
Hive off Air Traffic Control: Create a separate ATC company that works for AAI on a contract basis. This would allow it to work for any air navigation company in the world. But this isn’t feasible as this service is vital for the security of the country.
Hive off Air Navigation Services: Turn it into a government-owned corporation with AAI holding a stake and representation from the aviation sector. “It’ll give them responsibility and credit for good performance and help them focus on their core function,” say experts. This is the most likely scenario.
KPMG refused to comment.
An ATC source says, “We welcome this move. Though we generate 45% of the revenue for AAI, its investments are on other infrastructure. AAI should look at non-aeronautical sources of revenue such as hotels and amusement parks so that it can sustain itself without us.”
Adds another ATC official, “A separate entity would give us the freedom to procure the latest radars and Instrument Landing Systems, tackle manpower shortages and enhance training facilities. Have a good management person to head it and see how it becomes a successful corporation like ONGC.”
Private airport operators have welcomed the proposed autonomy for air navigation, saying such a move has worked well in other sectors, be it infotech, auto or telecom. “Anything which gives us efficient, safe air traffic services, whatever be the structure, is welcome. Old mindsets have to change. In a bureaucracy, procedures often overtake proficiency,” says a source. Also, AAI should have invested the money it got from its assets on improving ATC services.
“Instead, it has behaved like a civil engineering department dealing with huge contracts,” says a source. Hopefully, these air pockets may disappear soon.