Wednesday, April 8, 2015

US body restores India’s top aviation safety rank

NEW DELHI: The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Wednesday restored Indian aviation's top safety ranking, paving the way for desi airlines to start more flights to America and improving connectivity between the two countries. The upgrade comes almost 15 months after the directorate general of civil aviation (DGCA) was downgraded following major concerns over its inadequate safety oversight capabilities and lack of technical personnel to do the job. TOI had reported on April 1 that the upgrade was on its way. 

The move means that Indian carriers that fly to the US -- Air India and Jet -- will now be able to add frequencies as well as go to more cities in America. Jet plans to launch flights to the US both from India as well as via Abu Dhabi. AI is looking at inducting long range Dreamliners to augment its network in North America. AI will now be able to have code share flights with the US carriers of Star Alliance, of which it is also a member. Tata-Singapore Airlines JV Vistara will be able to fly there when India relaxes the rules for new desi carriers to go abroad. Improved connectivity will lead to competitive fares for Indian travelers. 

"I am pleased to advise you that the hard work undertaken and completed by your government on its safety oversight system resulted in positive findings during our recent discussions. We therefore determine that India now meets the requirements under the international oversight standards of the Chicago Convention.... India shall be immediately upgraded to category I," FAA wrote to DGCA chief M Sathiyavathy on Wednesday. "The DGCA has demonstrated a commitment to developing effective safety oversight of India's airline industry," it added. 

According to Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (Capa) data for 2013, Emirates had 18.5% share of the India-US market. Air India was second at 13.3% and Jet had just 2.3%. Now Indian carriers can push up their share in this critically important market. 

During a visit here in January, a FAA team had informed Sathiyavathy that the DGCA was yet to resolve 12 major shortcomings. "There were three major findings -- having sufficient number of flight operation inspectors (FOI) for maintaining adequate safety oversight on growing fleet of aircraft with Indian carriers; improper certification of schedule and charter airlines and similarly improper licensing of flight training schools," said a senior official. 

Then Sathiyavathy speeded up the process of hiring FOIs. "DGCA needs 75 FOIs. We have hired 51 so far. The remaining will be taken on board at the earliest without compromising on their quality," said the official. FOIs are senior airline commanders who are hired by DGCA at the salary they used to get in airlines to do surveillance and checks. While chief FOI gets over Rs 10 lakh a month, others get in the range of Rs 4-8 lakh monthly. Four FOIs have been hired exclusively for checking standard of training in flying schools. 

Apart from the groundwork, improved India-US ties in the Modi administration meant that DGCA got its top ranking back on Wednesday. US transportation secretary Anthony Foxx conveyed the news to aviation minister A G Raju and Sathiyavathy when he met them on Wednesday. 

The DGCA was downgraded as both UPA I and II failed to strengthen the agency so that it could effectively oversee the burgeoning air traffic in India, which has increased dramatically from 2005 when low cost carriers like IndiGo, SpiceJet and GoAir took wings. The downgrade had meant that Indian carriers flying to the US were not able to add any more flight there or have a new destination city in America. Also, US authorities could hold up their aircraft for checks and delay them their flights. What's worse, other countries can also express doubts at Indian carriers' safety record and insist on coming here for checks. 


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