Indian aviation has grown and is continuing to expand in keeping with the growing demand. With several aviation companies being launched in the last two decades, it was only a matter of time before there would be consolidation. Some survived, while most shut down and today the trend continues with Kingfisher, once the darling of the skies, going defunct while newer entrants like Air Asia and Vistara are beginning to join the race for a slice of the Indian skies.
Ask any commercial pilot today and he will tell you that flying is no more stress free, as was the case in earlier days, since air corridors have now become crowded and the level of alertness required results in higher levels of stress for all aviators in the air. And this brings forth a pertinent question, how safe is our skies?
That’s a serious question we all need answers to. The government would like to pat its chest and say ‘all is well’, but the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), USA seems to think otherwise and has downgraded our Air Safety Rating from Category I to Category II, which puts India one notch lower than Pakistan and in the company of countries like Bangladesh, Ghana and Barbados.
And here we are, all set to introduce two more airlines, while the government is still figuring out how to get out of the Kingfisher mess and has just agreed to once again bailout Air India, the perennial white elephant of India.
Any neutral observer who understands aviation and specifically, Indian aviation, will tell you that the aviation industry in India is one massive collage of myopic policies, mismanagement, political interference, poor planning, lack of safety culture and most all lack of long term vision. The result: our skies are busy but not safe.
India completely lacks the culture for safety and security. No, one is not referring to rules and regulations but safety as an ingrained philosophy where it becomes a lifestyle. Unfortunately, safety takes precedence only when in reactive mode immediately after a disaster rather than being given top priority, as a preventive measure and at all times.
Add to that issues like cronyism, favoritism and corruption, and you have a ready cocktail for disaster.
DGCA needs to step up
The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) is responsible for laying out the Standard Operating Procedure for civil aviation in India and is entrusted with the task of overseeing the safety compliance by all stakeholders. The DGCA as an organization needs to be reviewed and possibly restructured. DGCA has failed to grow with the expanding aviation sector in India and has not kept pace with recruitment, training and consistent standards of monitoring and ensuring safety compliance by all stakeholders.
Repeated cases have come to public attention that has not shown DGCA in good light and the final confirmation of the mess was validated when the country’s Air Safety Rating got downgraded to Category II status.
One look at DGCA’s own Safety Oversight Program for 2014 reveals some interesting facts. The Highlights of Surveillance for the years 2009 to 2013, shows that the number of surveillance checks conducted by DGCA were 2,856 (2009), 3,843 (2010), 4,728 (2011), 1,701 (2012), 1,982 (2013).
From the above, it’s clear that the maximum number of surveillance checks conducted was 4,728 (2011), while the very next year (2012) there was a drop of 64%! In 2013, the drop was 58% of the checks conducted in 2011! So why did the number of surveillance checks conducted, drop so radically within one year?
The DGCA fully understands that it is the number of checks conducted on various airlines operating in India, which keeps up the pressure for compliance on safety and related issues, so why did the number of checks come down. And with only 1,982 checks in 2013, it’s no wonder that the FAA of USA has downgraded our Air Safety Rating to Category II.
The number of checks are very relevant in detecting deficiencies in the aircraft and operating procedures. The total number of deficiencies detected were 40 Level I & 4,518 Level II (2009); 36 Level I & 5,652 Level II (2010); 27 Level I & 7,072 Level II (2011); 25 Level I & 5,999 Level II (2012); 29 Level I & 5,890 Level II (2013).
From the above, one can clearly see that the Level I deficiencies detected has been falling from 2009 till 2012, with a marginal increase in 2013, however, the Level II deficiencies detected rose sharply by 56% from 2009 to 2011.
In other words, the number of deficiencies detected seem directly proportionate to the number of checks carried out, as 2011 was the year when the maximum of number of 4,728 checks were carried out and resulted in maximum 7,072 Level II deficiencies being detected. So how does DGCA explain the drop in checks in 2013 by 58%!
This laxity is what should make this nation very scared, for our lives depend on how sincerely and how effectively DGCA carries out its responsibilities.
Now it’s not just the drop in checks that we should be worried about but also how seriously DGCA takes each violation that it detects. This is where cronyism comes into play where DGCA looks the other way when it is convenient.
One example of this would be the case of young pilot Rahul Malhotra of Spicejet, who made a hard landing in Jammu on Oct 04, 2013. A hard landing does take place once in a while, only this time the pilot in question did not report it. Post landing, he completed the Tech logsheet within 10 minutes while making no mention of the incident and the aircraft continued to fly onto 4 more sectors before reaching Chennai on Oct 05.
The aircraft could have been damaged with disastrous consequences. The matter was detected by Spicejet engineers the next day, however, it was only after ten days that the Civil Aviation Safety Advisory Council (CASAC), rightly reported the matter to the Director General (DGCA). The CASAC report was not acted upon by the three Spicejet pilots who are on deputation to DGCA as Flight Operations Inspectors (FOI) and what’s more, the Chief Pilot in Spicejet happens to be Captain Rahul Malhotra’s father, Captain Virendra Malhotra.
So on one hand we have the three FOIs from Spicejet trying to cover up the serious lapse, on the other hand we have a DG who sat over the report with no action taken. This is the state of affairs with the highest body in civil aviation that is supposed to be ensuring that our skies remain safe.
ATCs under pressure
Another area that urgently requires a review is the state of Air Traffic Controller (ATC) in the country. With a greater number of flights in the air, the time between take off and landings at the metro airports is narrowing and therefore the pressure on ATC is greater, since it requires a very high level of alertness and coordination between the ATC and the pilots. Any lapse in concentration or communication can lead to dangerous consequences.
Over a period we have had a series of near miss incidents and with increasing number of planes taking to the air, the role and responsibility of the ATC only increases. The department has been short on staff and related resources and the government has not kept pace with increasing resources required by ATC. The government needs to immediately look into all areas of ATC and ensure that we have a well-trained and adequately staffed ATC that can continue to ensure a safer sky.
The nation looks up to the government and all its arms to ensure that air travel is efficient and safe and it’s for the government to respond appropriately to ensure that Indian aviation continues to grow, in keeping with our rising economic power status.
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