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Downgraded to Biman India

Caught short by US on safety inspectors

File picture of an Air India Boeing 787 Dreamliner taking off near Paris during an air show, as a US flag flies in the foreground. (AFP)

New Delhi, Jan. 31: The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) today downgraded India’s aviation safety rating to Category 2.

This means Indian aviation is no longer in compliance with air safety standards framed by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the UN’s technical agency for aviation. The ICAO establishes international standards and recommends practices for aircraft operations and maintenance.

The immediate impact could be felt by Air India and Jet Airways, the two Indian carriers that fly to the US. India now joins a list that includes Bangladesh and trails Pakistan. (See chart)

Besides, unless and until full details are put in the public domain, questions can also be raised whether India’s safeguards within the country are not as stringent as those of the US and whether air travel here is less safe than in the West.

The US aviation regulator found oversight by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), India’s civil aviation regulator, inadequate.

After conducting an audit last year, the FAA found 31 specific safety concerns, including the need for more and better-trained, full-time inspectors employed by the regulator and tasked with carrying out safety checks on India’s aircraft and helicopters.

These issues can broadly be categorised as flaws and shortcomings in technical expertise, lack of trained personnel with DGCA and slippage in record-keeping or inspection procedures.

India has vowed to fix the problems, including the shortage of safety inspectors, by next month.

Last week, the DGCA had hurriedly appointed 75 additional full-time inspectors. The appointments were cleared by the Union cabinet. But the move, which was prompted by the consultations with the FAA inspection team, could not head off the embarrassing downgrade.

The DGCA had hired flight safety inspectors, highly trained pilots who monitor the performance of India’s pilots and engineer inspectors from the market on contract at rates believed to range between Rs 3 lakh and Rs 10 lakh a month.

“The FAA is available to work with the DGCA to help India regain its Category 1 rating,” said FAA administrator Michael Huerta. India was granted the Category 1 rating in August 1997.

The FAA established its International Aviation Safety Assessments (IASA) programme — under which it carries out these assessments — in 1992. The US regulator has vetted the standards in over 100 countries so far. Its website, however, lists the ratings of 93 countries, of which 13 have failed the test. India will now join that list.

In a bid to stem the tide of criticism of his handling of the FAA inspection, civil aviation minister Ajit Singh termed the downgrade “very disappointing and surprising” and claimed that Indian authorities had straightened out 29 of the 31 issues raised by the FAA during inspections.

“The US government commends the Indian government for taking these important actions, and looks forward to continued progress by Indian authorities to comply with internationally mandated aviation safety oversight standards,” the FAA said.

The FAA audited the Indian aviation regulator in September and December last year and raised issues, including the lack of enough flight inspection safety officers and inadequate training of officers who certify a plane is airworthy. “The FAA has determined that India at this time is not in compliance with the international standards for aviation safety oversight,” the US regulator said.

An FAA audit of the DGCA in 2010 had revealed shortcomings in the existing set-up, prompting the government to float a proposal to establish an independent civil aviation authority. The director-general of civil aviation is a government officer who is answerable to the civil aviation ministry, not to Parliament.

Last August, Singh managed to introduce the bill after several years of dilly-dallying. The minister today told reporters that the treasury benches would try to “pass the bill during the oncoming budget session”.

The ministry suggested it would continue to be business as usual. “Air India currently does not have any plan to increase flights between India and the US,” civil aviation secretary Prabhat Kumar said. At present, Air India operates flights to Chicago and New York while Jet Airways flies only to Newark.

Air India chairman Rohit Nandan said the downgrade would not impact the national carrier’s planned entry into Star Alliance, the global airline network that has 28 members and 4,700 planes and carries 727 million passengers to 1,328 airports each year.

Kapil Kaul, CEO, South Asia, at Capa, an aviation consultancy, agreed. “The Star Alliance deal is global — not just with the US — and was agreed upon a long time back,” he said.

However, the aviation regulator will have to work very hard to regain its Category 1 rating from the FAA. “This is a national embarrassment,” said Kaul.

His Sydney-based aviation consultancy had in a 2012 study warned of an impending downgrade for the DGCA. “In 2009, we made some cosmetic changes to address those concerns. But five years since, from a fundamental perspective, we remained the same.”

Kaul blamed it all on the government’s slow hiring process that precipitated the staff shortage at the DGCA. “In 2009, the shortfall was pegged at 500. If the DGCA does a current assessment on its actual shortfall, it might be much higher,” Kaul added.

Minister Singh, however, continued to defend the DGCA. He claimed the ICAO’s assessment of India in line with its Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme was much above the global average. Under this audit programme, the ICAO had identified eight critical elements: legislation, organisation, licensing, operation, airworthiness, accident investigation, air navigation and aerodromes.

“As per the ICAO’s 2013 safety report based on these norms, the audit result as of December 31, 2012, shows that India ranks among states that have an effective implementation that is way above the global average. The global average is 61 per cent whereas India’s effective implementation is 79.1 per cent,” Singh said.

“The only area where India is below the global average is in organisation. India has already created 75 posts. After the recruitment, it is expected that the effective implementation in this (organisation) element will also rise above the global average,” he added.

IN THE COMPANY OF BANGLADESH

YOUR QUESTIONS

What does Category 2 mean?

It means a country either lacks the laws or regulations necessary to oversee air carriers in accordance with minimum international standards, or that its civil aviation authority is deficient in one or more areas, such as technical expertise, trained personnel, record-keeping or inspection procedures

What’s the immediate impact on India?

Air India and Jet Airways, the two Indian carriers that fly to the US, will be allowed to maintain their existing services but cannot establish new services. No new carrier from India will be allowed to fly to the US until the Category 1 ranking is regained. Jet and Air India will also not be permitted to sign more code-sharing deals with other airlines in the US

What about passengers?

Passengers flying to and from the US on these flights could face delays as these planes will be subject to more stringent engineering and other safety checks in the US.

A doubt will also nag all passengers in India whether our standards are as
stringent as those of America

Why are some calling it a national embarrassment?

India now tumbles into a category of 13 other nations that include Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Paraguay, Barbados, the Philippines and Ghana. The others in Category 2 are Nicaragua, Indonesia, Swaziland, Curacao, Serbia, Saint Martin and Uruguay. Pakistan and Ethiopia are now ranked higher than India

Can’t we strike back Khobragade-style?

Scope for a tit-for-tat retaliation looks extremely limited. Very few American carriers fly to India any more, preferring to operate through code-sharing arrangements. However, United Airlines has daily flights to Delhi and Mumbai from Newark. But right now, India doesn’t have the inspection teams to send out to vet the state of America’s aviation safety.