The nightly aircraft line-up tail parade at the apron of Kempegowda International Airport Bangalore
The nightly aircraft line-up at the apron of Kempegowda International Airport Bangalore

Opinion: India needs long-term systemic changes to boost aviation sector

For the better part of this year, India has suffered the ignominy of being one of only 11 countries relegated to Category 2 status by the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as its safety oversight regime did not meet international standards. The relegation dealt a serious dent in the operations of India’s airlines by a freeze on their US operations and suspension of code-share agreement from US airlines.

Since then we have been hearing the nation’s regulator the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has been taking corrective actions and has convinced the FAA to conduct another audit, now planned in the first week of December, to bring Indian aviation back to Category 1.

SpiceJet Surat incident

The November 7th incident at Surat airport when a SpiceJet Boeing 737 hit a buffalo, which had wandered on to the runway, is not in isolation. In the last year alone Indian airlines have suffered in excess of 600 “wildlife strikes”. While a majority of them are bird-strikes, animal strikes also occurred. Less than two months ago a SpiceJet aircraft hit a jackal at Indore airport. A few years ago, a Kingfisher Airlines plane hit a group of pigs while landing at Nagpur, giving a new twist to the idiom “when pigs fly”.

Five airports along with Nagpur have been identified as critically prone to wildlife strikes. Ahmedabad is a nightmare for bird-strikes amongst pilots, Udaipur, Bhubaneswar, and Kochi round off the list.

Within a day of the Surat incident we were told that the neighbouring villagers broke the airport wall to let their cattle graze. This rather weak explanation raised questions on the efficacy of the operator, the Airports Authority of India (AAI), and the security agencies. like the CISF. Note: I have later learnt that the Gujarat state security apparatus protects Surat airport, and not the CISF.

The runway is the highest security zone of an airport. If a large, lumbering, un-intelligent beast can penetrate it, unchecked, what about a group of determined terrorists? Are we just begging for another 26/11?

To be fair, wildlife strikes are a known and accepted risk at airports around the world. Airports have vast tracts of open land, a haven for rabbits, snakes, canines and birds. Operators mitigate risks with a strong regimen using technology like surface movement radars and intrusion detection systems, along with intensive human monitoring, patrolling and prevention. Indian security norms mandate CISF watchtowers every few hundred metres so that the entire perimeter of an airport boundary can be visually monitored. If a breach does occur, it should be addressed almost immediately, armed CISF guards placed on the spot to secure the breach, repairs to be done, normally, within 24 hours.

These norms are enforced at India’s private airports. When it comes to the government’s AAI operated airports, it appears not. And herein lies the crux of the problem.

DGCA – the toothless watchdog

Unlike its foreign counterparts that are apolitical organisations, the DGCA is a political organisation, and which reports to the same ministry as the AAI and Air India.

After 2007, when the last technocrat DGCA, Kanu Gohain retired, a bureaucrat has headed the DGCA. But, since the Director General is a bureaucrat of junior rank compared to the Chairmen of AAI or Air India, it’s impossible for anyone at the regulator to bare fangs at these ministry siblings.

When asked about Surat, the operations head of an airport explains, “The regulator should be completely independent. When you have the regulator reporting in to same ministry as the airport operator and airline, a cover-up possibility is immense”.

This duality of standards was demonstrated in the recent pilots’ license issue that occurred at Jet Airways and Air India. While the DGCA called for stringent action against Jet’s trainers, senior pilots and management, there was the barest of whispers for Air India.

This specific gap, of the DGCA to maintain the integrity and quality of infrastructure uniformly across all airports and airlines in India was one of the key failures identified by the FAA and ICAO during their audits.

As the head of airside for an Indian airport explains “The DGCA is powerless when its comes to AAI or AI [Air India]. Many times instead of listening, AAI/AI officers dictate terms to DGCA inspectors saying I have been doing this for many years and I know better than you”.

It is hard to accept that an auditor or inspector can be brow-beaten by the assessee and the DGCA has itself to blame, at least partially.

The explosive growth of Indian aviation in the last decade has left the DGCA struggling to catch up. The DGCA did not even have a proper airport licensing procedure till airport privatisation began a few year back. Only recently has the DGCA created a small section on aerodrome standards and enforcement, it still lacks a much needed specific division on this topic.

The head of an Indian airport explains, for a metro airport like Mumbai or Delhi it should take about 30 to 40 man-days to do the ICAO [International Civil Aviation Organisation] mandated inspection once every two years. At present it is done in about one eighth of the time.

In a reactionary effort to bring India back to Category 1 status with the FAA, the DGCA is passing new rules with good intentions but achieving some undesired results. The head of flight operations at an airline explains, “For long India did not fully conform to ICAO rules. The changes needed are systemic and these need to done in a proactive and systematic manner. By attempting to do in six months what normally should take two or three years, and without talking to all the stakeholders, the actions of the DGCA are resulting in a lot of confusion. The recent pilots’ license issue is a result of confusion created by the DGCA issuing three regulations on the same subject in rapid succession creating confusion in interpretation.”

The DGCA’s status as a government department is largely to blame for the shortage of flight inspectors it faces. Flight inspectors are the top-echelon of the pilot community who earn over Rs 8 to 10 lakhs per month. Bound by government remuneration rules the DGCA simply cannot match the salaries and benefits senior pilots earn. As the head of flight safety of an Indian airline asks “Who will leave their jobs and perks and go join the DGCA for a quarter of the salary?” Consequently the DGCA has filled the open positions with pilots who lack adequate flight inspection experience. Will the new flight inspectors face the same brow-beating airport inspectors face?

Like the DGCA another regulatory organisation that is hit by chronic staff shortage is the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS) that oversees policy and operations of airport security in India. Funding is not the issue. With each of India’s 85 million departing passengers paying Rs 130, security fee collections exceeded Rs 1,100 crores last year. The blanket freeze in government hiring has ensured that there are simply not enough people available. Safety policy and inspections are suffering as a result. The government, which has exempted hiring of military and paramilitary forces from the ban, needs to extend this exemption to the BCAS too.

There are aspirations and there is reality. We may aspire to be the third largest civil aviation market within the next decade, we would like to believe we have arrived on the world stage, but the harsh reality is, that our government is doing a woefully inadequate job in the aviation sector, a critical driver of the economic growth engine, and enabler of our global ambitions.

The BJP government should immediately implement the UPA-2 cabinet decision to create the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Funded by fees paid by passengers and industry, not government, the CAA will be economically independent and not be hampered from affording the highly specialised professionals required to perform its many technical tasks. Headed by a technocrat and not dependent on, or reporting to the ministry, the CAA will be politically independent.

If India has to follow the path Prime Minister Narendra Modi has charted, a lot has to done. Across the board, both the political and bureaucratic establishment has to drive large-scale, long-term, focused, and time-bound systemic changes recognising the potential for the aviation industry in India.

An abridged version of this article appeared in The Economic Times newspaper on November 16, 2014. Read it here.

About Devesh Agarwal

A electronics and automotive product management, marketing and branding expert, he was awarded a silver medal at the Lockheed Martin innovation competition 2010. He is ranked 6th on Mashable's list of aviation pros on Twitter and in addition to Bangalore Aviation, he has contributed to leading publications like Aviation Week, Conde Nast Traveller India, The Economic Times, and The Mint (a Wall Street Journal content partner). He remains a frequent flier and shares the good, the bad, and the ugly about the Indian aviation industry without fear or favour.

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