Saturday, February 08, 2014

India’s aviation safety ranking downgrade: How politicians, bureaucrats ruined a sunrise industry

Jitender Bhargava

The recent downgrading of India's aviation safety ranking, because of inadequate regulatory oversight, by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is a blow to India's image: it is now ranked at par with the Philippines, Indonesia, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh — and below Pakistan.   Civil aviation minister Ajit Singh described the development as "disappointing". But the demand to fix accountability for this unwarranted mess was totally ignored.

What made the downgrade more unfortunate was that though enough warnings had been given, they were not heeded to and the ministry's chalta hai attitude prevailed. The downgrade has come as no surprise. The recent past is replete with instances of the ministry's procrastination in every aspect of its functioning and neglect of priorities.

Musical Chairs

India is functioning without a national aviation policy. For over 20 years, the policy has been in formulation phase. In recent years, I have stopped hearing anything related to it, as if plans have been quietly buried.

Why has it remained in cold storage? The political leadership and bureaucrats, in the absence of policy, take ad-hoc and partisan decisions, depending on which airline or country is seeking a sanction.

To understand the downgrade of our safety ranking, one needs to look at the way the sector is being managed. Bureaucrats with no knowledge of the aviation sector have been appointed in the ministry. They learn on the job, take flawed decisions and by the time they have acquired a modicum of understanding, they are moved out on completion of tenure.

One minister introduced the eligibility norm of five years of domestic operations and fleet of minimum 20 aircraft to fly internationally, to suit a particular airline. Another minister called it a manipulated policy and is now trying to revoke it.

Flying on Autopilot

A consequence of inexperienced personnel running the sector and ministers wielding huge powers has been the dismal state of the industry. Problems identified years ago have been allowed to fester. If fuel prices have contributed to high operational costs, nothing meaningful has been done. Same with congestion at airports.

Regulator Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) is now in the eye of the storm. It has been managed by IAS officers for almost a decade now. With no inductions allowed in DGCA for over 15 years when the industry witnessed maximum expansion, the number of officers needed for effective monitoring are today far short of the requirement.

Under pressure from the US after compliance audit, and the threat of downgrade looming on the horizon, the ministry quickly decided to create 75 positions of technical personnel to carry out safety inspection of airlines and private charter companies, before the formal announcement was received. Singh is hoping that by March, the downgrade will be reversed. His optimism is misplaced. The induction of personnel, following government-approved procedures, will take time.

Air India is the biggest casualty; it took the ministry over two years to formulate a turnaround plan for it and infuse equity. It bungled on aircraft purchase for Air India and on its merger with Indian Airlines. DGCA has lost its autonomy and become an extended arm of the ministry with joint secretaries designated as the head of the regulatory body.

This loss of focus was evident recently when DGCA showed greater concern for the extension of privileges to MPs by private airlines, than attend to aviation safety. A new regulatory agency, Civil Aviation Authority, approved by the Cabinet in July 2013, to replace DGCA, has still to take shape.

Babus with Long Red Tape

All state-owned companies under the aviation ministry are managed by IAS officers: Air India is managed by them full time, the DGCA, Airports Authority of India and Pawan Hans, part-time.

  Our airlines report 75% occupancy. Yet, most report losses and one has collapsed. The policy on investment from overseas airlines was delayed till Kingfisher Airlines was almost dead. The only job accomplished with alacrity in recent years by the ministry has been to grant excessive air traffic rights to foreign carriers, even if it means compromising the interests of Indian carriers. Sometimes, the ministry's bureaucrats work with supreme efficiency.

Like the time when they awarded 36,700 seats per week on the India-Abu Dhabi sector or when they approved the Jet-Etihad deal in under two months. The same ministry and the same Cabinet had taken over two years to sanction the launch of Air India Engineering Services.

The US downgrade is a wake-up call. Civil aviation needs expertise. Bureaucrats with file-pushing skills will just not do. Aviation is a catalyst for economic growth and it cannot be neglected. Maybe the next government will set things right.

The writer is former executive director, Air India

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