On a wing and a prayer ?

Air Mar­shal Bri­jesh D. Jayal on the state of

Vayu Aerospace and Defence - - Contents -

Air Mar­shal Bri­jesh Jayal writes on the state of Civil Avi­a­tion in In­dia and voices con­cerns on var­i­ous as­pects for safe and re­li­able air trans­porta­tion. Whilst the DGCA is the reg­u­la­tory body, its ‘ loy­al­ties’ seem as be­ing di­vided be­tween its po­lit­i­cal masters and the key mis­sion in en­sur­ing op­er­a­tional and safety stan­dards.

Not that very long ago, air travel in the coun­try was the sub­ject of a rag­ing de­bate, not just in the pub­lic do­main, but in the rar­efied po­lit­i­cal at­mos­phere of Lu­tyen’s Delhi as well. The rea­son was un­ruly be­hav­iour of an MP who chose to at­tack an Air In­dia staffer with his slip­pers, for not be­ing ac­com­mo­dated in Busi­ness Class. Air In­dia le­git­i­mately barred the MP from its flights and other car­ri­ers rightly fol­lowed suit. But be­cause the is­sue had taken on po­lit­i­cal over­tones, the Min­istry of Civil Avi­a­tion, which con­trols both Air In­dia and the DGCA had to fall in line and the ban was lifted. More re­cently an­other par­lia­men­tar­ian chose to as­sault and abuse an In­digo staff mem­ber for be­ing de­nied board­ing due to late ar­rival.

On 22 July 2017, the crew of an Air In­dia Air­bus 320 flight from Kolkata to Mumbai ob­served ab­nor­mally high fuel con­sump­tion and de­cided to di­vert to Nag­pur. Judg­ing by me­dia re­ports, it was only when pre­par­ing to land at Nag­pur that it dawned on the pi­lots that they had for­got­ten to re­tract the land­ing gear af­ter take-off from Kolkata ! With­out go­ing into the finer points of their un­be­liev­able in­com­pe­tence, neg­li­gence and to­tal ab­sence of sit­u­a­tional aware­ness, both these pi­lots should never ever have qual­i­fied to be sit­ting where they were. How they got there re­flects on the en­tire civil avi­a­tion sys­tem from the fly­ing train­ing acad­e­mies, many of which are money-mak­ing en­ter­prises, to test­ing and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion stan­dards and meth­ods, to our reg­u­la­tory sys­tems in­volv­ing the DGCA and in­deed the apex body of Min­istry of Civil Avi­a­tion.

With air travel be­ing in the news for all the wrong rea­sons, it is per­haps an op­por­tune time to delve a lit­tle deeper into what es­sen­tially has come to be taken for granted as just an­other mode of travel in In­dia; the corol­lary be­ing, that if we can abuse our other pub­lic trans­porta­tion sys­tems, what’s so dif­fer­ent about air trans­port?

There is, how­ever, a dif­fer­ence. The medium of air, un­like that of sur­face or sea, is seam­less and ex­tends into the third di­men­sion. This re­quires those us­ing this medium to fol­low uni­form pro­to­cols of nav­i­ga­tion, com­mu­ni­ca­tion and safety to en­sure a con­trolled air traf­fic en­vi­ron­ment with or­der­li­ness, which must be all en­com­pass­ing and in­ter­na­tional in na­ture. A de­vi­a­tion by one can en­dan­ger the skies for many. In ad­di­tion, un­like sur­face modes of trans­port, faced with an emer­gent or cri­sis sit­u­a­tion, air­craft in the air can­not stop mid­way to take stock and ad­dress the is­sue. These and many such con­sid­er­a­tions have re­sulted in the In­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity join­ing to­gether to bring about stan­dards and pro­to­cols for com­mer­cial air travel.

Two pri­mary agen­cies are the In­ter­na­tional Civil Avi­a­tion Or­gan­i­sa­tion (ICAO) and the In­ter­na­tional Air Trans­port As­so­ci­a­tion ( IATA). The for­mer is a spe­cialised agency of the United Na­tions, which cod­i­fies the prin­ci­ples and tech­niques of in­ter­na­tional air nav­i­ga­tion and fos­ters the plan­ning and de­vel­op­ment of in­ter­na­tional air trans­port to en­sure safe and or­derly con­duct and growth. The lat­ter is a trade as­so­ci­a­tion of the world’s air­lines con­sist­ing of 274 air­lines rep­re­sent­ing 117 coun­tries. It sup­ports air­line ac­tiv­ity and helps for­mu­late in­dus­try-wide pol­icy and stan­dards.

Ac­cord­ing to IATA, safety is the first pri­or­ity for the Or­gan­i­sa­tion and the main in­stru­ment of it is the IATA Op­er­a­tional Safety Au­dit ( IOSA), which has been man­dated by many coun­tries. A re­cent ex­am­ple of its con­cern to­wards avi­a­tion safety is its re­sponse to the dis­ap­pear­ance of Malaysian Air­lines Flight 370, which still re­mains un­traced, by set­ting up a spe­cial panel to study mea­sures to track in real time air­craft in flight.

The is­sue of un­ruly pas­sen­ger be­hav­iour is one sig­nif­i­cant in­dus­try con­cern and the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity is se­ri­ous about fac­ing it head on. In 2014 the Tokyo Con­ven­tion of 1963, deal­ing with the sub­ject was mod­i­fied to im­prove air­lines’ abil­ity to deal with un­ruly pas­sen­ger in­ci­dents and en­hance avi­a­tion se­cu­rity. Called the Mon­treal Pro­to­col 2014, this was of­fi­cially adopted by ICAO with 100 gov­ern­ments par­tic­i­pat­ing in the process and which will come into force once 22 states rat­ify it. Since VIP as a tribe is vir­tu­ally un­known out­side In­dia, nei­ther the Tokyo Con­ven­tion nor the Mon­treal Pro­to­col make any ex­cep­tion on this score.

Fol­low­ing in­ci­dents ear­lier men­tioned, the Min­istry of Civil Avi­a­tion had re­leased draft rules for a ‘no-fly list’ and the Min­is­ter of State for Civil Avi­a­tion has re­cently in­formed Par­lia­ment that the gov­ern­ment pro­poses to de­clare un­ruly be­hav­iour aboard an air­craft as an of­fence and a pun­ish­able act. But these are mere band-aids and the struc­tural weak­nesses in In­dia’s en­tire civil avi­a­tion sec­tor, not just pas­sen­ger be­hav­iour, need ma­jor surgery.

In­dia is the ninth-largest civil avi­a­tion mar­ket in the world and ex­pected to be­come the third largest by 2020.Be­ing a re­spon­si­ble mem­ber of the ICAO fra­ter­nity, it is ex­pected to main­tain in­ter­na­tional stan­dards in the way Civil Avi­a­tion is reg­u­lated and man­aged in the coun­try. This as the ex­am­ples, above show, is far from re­al­ity.

The Directorate Gen­eral of Civil Avi­a­tion is the reg­u­la­tory body gov­ern­ing safety as­pects of civil avi­a­tion in In­dia. Since it is an at­tached of­fice of the Min­istry of Civil Avi­a­tion, its loy­al­ties are di­vided be­tween its po­lit­i­cal masters and its mis­sion of en­sur­ing that op­er­a­tional and safety stan­dards are metic­u­lously main­tained. Since the DGCA de­rives its ad­min­is­tra­tive and fi­nan­cial au­thor­ity from the Min­istry, it is not sur­pris­ing, as in­deed the fol­low­ing les­son from his­tory will show, that ex­ter­nal in­flu­ences will pre­vail and safety suf­fer.

When Air Mar­shal Za­heer, af­ter re­tire­ment from the IAF, was ap­pointed as the Di­rec­tor Gen­eral of Civil Avi­a­tion in 1979, there was op­ti­mism amongst the avi­a­tion fra­ter­nity that pro­fes­sion­al­is­ing of the ap­point­ment would bring some or­der to an avi­a­tion ori­ented or­gan­i­sa­tion where or­der and dis­ci­pline must in­deed be at the heart of its func­tion­ing. In keep­ing with his re­spon­si­bil­ity, Air Mar­shal Za­heer re­fused, in­spite of im­mense pres­sure, to with­draw a case against an in­flu­en­tial po­lit­i­cal leader for hav­ing flown a com­mer­cial air­liner with pas­sen­gers,with­out a valid li­cence. To those of us who lived through that pe­riod of In­dia’s po­lit­i­cal his­tory, this needed pro­fes­sional in­tegrity and com­mit­ment of a high or­der. He fur­ther banned this in­di­vid­ual from per­form­ing aer­o­bat­ics over Delhi in vi­o­la­tion of all laid down safety norms. In 1980, when this or­der was dis­re­garded, he re­signed and de­clined to with­draw his res­ig­na­tion. In the po­lit­i­cal af­ter­math of the death of this in­di­vid­ual, do­ing ex­actly what the then DGCA had cau­tioned against, un­for­tu­nately the larger les­son of the in­de­pen­dence of the DGCA was lost.

In a way, the brief ex­per­i­ment to pro­fes­sion­alise civil avi­a­tion in the coun­try died with this still-born ex­per­i­ment. Since then, for a large part both DGCA and Air In­dia have re­mained fief­doms of the bu­reau­cracy and the re­sults are for all to see. Even as civil avi­a­tion has grown man­i­fold, the of­fi­cial ap­proach re­mains wed­ded to yesteryears. Civil avi­a­tion, to this writer’s mind, con­tin­ues on a ‘wing and a prayer’.

As per its web­site, the Min­istry of Civil Avi­a­tion is ‘re­spon­si­ble for for­mu­la­tion of na­tional policies and pro­grammes for the de­vel­op­ment and reg­u­la­tion of the Civil Avi­a­tion sec­tor in the coun­try. It is re­spon­si­ble for the ad­min­is­tra­tion of the Air­craft Act, 1934, Air­craft Rules, 1937 and var­i­ous other leg­is­la­tions per­tain­ing to the avi­a­tion sec­tor in the coun­try.’ Fur­ther, ‘the Com­mis­sion of Rail­way Safety, which is re­spon­si­ble for safety in rail travel and op­er­a­tions in terms of the pro­vi­sions of the Rail­ways Act, 1989 also comes un­der the ad­min­is­tra­tive con­trol of this Min­istry’!

It speaks of ones ar­chaic mind­set that a min­istry deal­ing with is­sues of mod­ern day civil avi­a­tion in the coun­try, lit­er­ally grow­ing at a gal­lop­ing pace with chal­lenges of newer tech­nolo­gies, evolv­ing se­cu­rity threats and ex­po­nen­tial growth, can still talk in terms of ad­min­is­ter­ing by Air­craft Act 1934 and Air­craft Rules 1937 with­out at least bring­ing out more mod­ern vari­ants of these. This mind­set is fur­ther en­dorsed when we learn that it is re­spon­si­ble for safety in rail travel as well! That no one has thought it nec­es­sary to cor­rect these anomolies, demon­strates that the Min­istry of Civil Avi­a­tion re­mains frozen in a by-gone era.

The US Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Agency had in 2013 con­ducted an au­dit of the DGCA and had found 33 in­ad­e­qua­cies within the DGCA reg­u­la­tory sys­tem and down­graded DGCA’s rank­ing to Cat­e­gory II from the ear­lier Cat­e­gory I, in or­der to en­sure safe travel. This brought In­dia at par with coun­tries like Zam­bia in terms of air safety! At the time this had cre­ated a flurry of ac­tiv­ity and the Min­istry of Civil Avi­a­tion had, in 2014, made ef­forts to push through the long pend­ing Civil Avi­a­tion Au­thor­ity Bill that aimed to cre­ate a fi­nan­cially au­ton­o­mous body to re­place the Directorate of Civil Avi­a­tion.

With the re­vo­ca­tion of the down­grade by FAA in 2016, the Min­is­ter of Civil Avi­a­tion ruled out set­ting up the CAA terming it as a mere change in names and in­stead talked of ush­er­ing in trans­parency. Hav­ing had to eat hum­ble pie ear­lier by hav­ing to lift the ‘no fly’ ban on an er­rant MP and the more re­cent in­ci­dent re­ferred to above, where the pas­sen­gers had a prov­i­den­tial es­cape, the Min­is­ter may wish to pon­der over his ear­lier views. In­deed he would do well to ask his Min­istry to look back at what those with a deeper in­sight in avi­a­tion and aero­nau­tics have had to say.

The Aero­nau­ti­cal So­ci­ety of In­dia un­der the pres­i­dentship of APJ Ab­dul Kalam had, in 1994, pro­posed a com­pre­hen­sive Na­tional Aero­nau­tics Pol­icy doc­u­ment for con­sid­er­a­tion of the gov­ern­ment. In 2004, the AeSI re­sub­mit­ted a re­vised pro­posal in whose for­mu­la­tion, this writer was also closely as­so­ci­ated. This pro­posed a vi­able or­gan­i­sa­tional and man­age­ment model to cover var­i­ous in­sti­tu­tions like a Civil Avi­a­tion Au­thor­ity, a Na­tional Air Safety Board, Na­tional Air Traf­fic Space and Air Nav­i­ga­tion Agency, an Air­wor­thi­ness and Qual­ity As­sur­ance Agency, and civil mil­i­tary co­or­di­na­tion. This com­pre­hen­sive pro­posal lies buried and for­got­ten in gov­ern­ment archives.

Writ­ing an Opin­ion Col­umn in a na­tional daily af­ter the Man­ga­lore crash in which 158 lives were lost, this writer had re­ferred to the above pro­posal and con­cluded that sta­tus quo was no longer an op­tion. Clearly our man­darins in Ra­jiv Gandhi Bhawan that houses the Min­istry of Civil Avi­a­tion think oth­er­wise!

Air In­dia Boe­ing 787 Dream­liner

Board­ing at Spice­Jet

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