Indian Air Safety Audit Could Draw Unwelcome Outside Scrutiny

 - January 9, 2012, 6:25 PM
Authorities have identified Kingfisher Airlines as one of several Indian carriers whose financial problems have raised safety concerns.

A controversy is raging over the safety practices of India’s airlines following the partial “leak” of a financial audit from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). The report indicated that poor safety practices may be endemic in the Indian air transport sector.

“A reasonable case exists for withdrawal of Kingfisher Airlines’ Air Operators Permit as its financial stress is likely to impinge on safety,” said the DGCA audit in one of its conclusions. It went on to suggest that all other Indian domestic carriers need to improve safety standards. However, Indian airlines have refuted claims that their well-documented financial problems have led to corners being cut in flight crew and maintenance arrangements.

“Airlines understand the consequences to their existence if they have an accident,” civil aviation commentator Jitender Bhargava told AIN. “Also, let us not forget that Air India’s own engineering facility has [U.S.] FAA clearance.”

Cash-strapped Kingfisher Airlines, owned by high-profile liquor tycoon Vijay Mallya, has found itself under particularly close scrutiny, with 19 of its 64 airliners currently grounded. It is struggling to pay off some $1.23 billion in debts and, along with many other Indian carriers, has seen profits decimated by rising costs, including heavy fuel taxes and high operating costs. Kingfisher’s domestic market share fell to fifth place in November, from third place the previous month.

Some observers have argued that by releasing the DGCA report without reaching a final conclusion (airlines have not yet submitted their answers to queries by the agency), Indian authorities might have given foreign aviation authorities cause to scrutinize India’s air safety record. In the past, the European Union has “blacklisted” Asian carriers from Indonesia, the Philippines and Kazakhstan.

One analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AIN that the situation could tarnish India’s image in the international market, which has until now shown an interest in investing in the growing aviation industry. Following the Air India Express crash in 2010, the International Air Transport Association had recommended a requirement that all Indian carriers undergo its Operational Safety Audit (IOSA).

However, in a statement released in July 2010, the FAA confirmed that India not only met with the agency’s International Aviation Safety Assessments (IASA) Cat 1 status, but also that it could serve as a model in the civil aviation sector for other nations in the Asia region.