Air Transport Growth in India Threatened by Safety Lapses

 - October 18, 2018, 11:30 AM

India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) awaits a visit by a Federal Aviation Administration team from the U.S. on October 31 and November 1 to review compliance of safety oversight following an audit carried out a few months ago. If the Indian regulator hasn’t addressed major oversights, it risks a downgrade to Category 2 status, similar to that issued in 2014. Such an outcome would result in a grim deceleration in growth plans of domestic carriers with ambitions to fly to the West.

Recent incidents include an Air India Express Boeing 737-800 flying for four hours in a severely damaged state after clipping a perimeter wall and instrument landing system antennas at the airport in Tiruchirapalli on takeoff. Others include a case of a technician getting sucked into an engine, near midair collisions, and many bird strikes. Release of investigation reports generally takes at least a year. 

Now the urgency has become apparent. Late last month, following several injuries resulting from a fall in cabin pressure aboard a Jet Airways 737-800 due to flight crew error, minister of civil aviation Suresh Prabhu ordered a safety audit of all scheduled airlines and airports. The authorities plan to release the report by October 25.

India has gone through at least four FAA and ICAO safety audits in the past four years. In 2014, the FAA downgraded it to Category 2 over issues such as lack of adequate numbers of flight inspection safety officers and training of officers for airworthiness. In July this year the FAA, under its International Aviation Safety Assessment (IASA) program, found similar problems.

“The increase in incidents has put a focus on training and compliance,” said Vishok Mansingh, CEO of Indian low-fare carrier Trujet. Mansingh said as the average age of the workforce falls and more qualified people retire, regulators will need to practice still more vigilance. Meanwhile, the government has delayed plans to establish an independent civil aviation authority with its own budget. “We need an autonomous body to handle such imminent issues,” said Mansingh.

Matters of major concern to the FAA include the poor financial state of airlines, midair engine failures, a shortage of flight operations inspectors (FOIs), and lack of type-trained instructors. According to a senior ministry official, of the 85 FOIs required, the DGCA employs 75. “The workforce shortage is a result of funds not being enough,” he said. “We require ministry approval for everything. The process is slow in coming.”

As competition gets tougher and fares hit their lowest levels in years, yields suffer along with the financial health of carriers such as Jet Airways and Air India. Some 20 Air India aircraft sit grounded as the airline cannibalizes them for spare parts and Jet Airways counts at least six AOGs for the same reason.

The DGCA, meanwhile, recently released its 2018-2022 five-year National Aviation Safety Plan “supporting prioritization and continuous improvement of aviation safety,” according to a statement in a report from civil aviation director general B.S. Bhullar.