On a wing and a prayer ?
Air Marshal Brijesh D. Jayal on the state of
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!
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