Safety is a professional matter

The storm in a teacup involving a political leader and his flight in a private jet appears to have blown over with the directorate general of civil aviation announcing an investigation. What was reported later as a mere autopilot malfunction was thus described by a passenger: “The whole flight experience left the passengers... fearing for the lives. The crew was also apparently petrified and admitted that the flight was particularly frightening and uncommon.”   

By Brijesh D. Jayal
  • Published 7.06.18
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The storm in a teacup involving a political leader and his flight in a private jet appears to have blown over with the directorate general of civil aviation announcing an investigation. What was reported later as a mere autopilot malfunction was thus described by a passenger: "The whole flight experience left the passengers... fearing for the lives. The crew was also apparently petrified and admitted that the flight was particularly frightening and uncommon."

If this were so, it defies imagination as to why the crew made no distress call on the radio or file a post-flight incident report even to the airport authorities in Hubli, which would be part of standard operating procedure. According to the Indian Aircraft Act 1934, Clause 4, the safety oversight functions come under the DGCA and, according to rules, any accident or incident investigation involving civil registered aircraft is the responsibility of the Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau under the ministry of civil aviation. Hence, those wishing to complain should have reported the matter either to the Hubli airport authorities or to the DGCA.

Instead, a member of the VIP party chose to write a complaint to the director general of police, Karnataka. It is possible that he was unaware of the niceties of civil aviation rules and chose the police route. But a statement issued by the deputy commissioner of police (law and order), Renuka Sukumar, reportedly states: "An FIR is being taken up in the Gokul Road Police Station against the pilots on the complaint of Sri Shakir Sannadhi, general secretary, KPCC, under Indian Penal Code Sections 287 and 336, read with Section 11 of the Aircraft Act 1934." The statement clarified that Section 287 relates to negligent conduct with respect to machinery, Section 336 to endangering life or personal safety of others and Section 11 to imprisonment and fine.

By registering a first information report, the DCP appears to have acted outside her remit. The FIR refers to Section 11 of the IAA, that covers "penalty for flying so as to cause danger", pointing to the pilots, but ignores Section 4 under which jurisdiction of such investigation is with the DGCA and not with the civil police. Also, what connection did Sannadhi have with the incident that a crime was registered under the IAA, when he was neither a passenger nor a material witness? The answers, however, may rest in the political realm.

Not too long ago a member of parliament chose to attack an Air India staffer with his slippers for not being accommodated in business class. Air India legitimately barred this MP from its flights and other carriers rightly followed suit. But because the issue had taken on political overtones, the ministry of civil aviation had the ban lifted. This was followed by a parliamentarian assaulting an IndiGo staff member on being denied boarding owing to late arrival.

After these incidents, the ministry of civil aviation released draft rules for a "no-fly list" and the minister of state for civil aviation informed Parliament that the government proposed to declare unruly behaviour aboard an aircraft a punishable act. But such band-aids will not ensure air safety when the culture of VIPs and competitive politics clashes with the business of professional commercial aviation.

India is the ninth largest civil aviation market in the world and is expected to become the third largest by 2020. Being a responsible member of the International Civil Aviation Organization fraternity, it is expected to maintain international standards in the way civil aviation is regulated and managed. Recent events show that this expectation is far removed from reality. Worse, civil aviation is gradually being dragged into the cesspool of politics. In order to step back from the abyss, lessons from these events need to be learnt.

The DGCA is the regulatory body governing safety in Indian civil aviation. Since it is an attached office of the civil aviation ministry, its loyalties are divided between its political masters and its mission of ensuring operational and safety standards. As it derives its administrative and financial authority from the ministry, it is susceptible to external factors. An old incident shows how attempts to professionalize the DGCA have failed.

Air Marshal Jaffar Zaheer, after retiring from the Indian air force, was appointed director general of civil aviation in 1979. In this role he refused, in spite of pressure, to withdraw a case against an influential political leader for having flown a commercial airliner with passengers without a licence. He also banned this individual from performing aerobatics over Delhi in violation of safety norms and when his order was disregarded, he resigned. That the individual was killed doing exactly what the then DGCA had cautioned against was tragic, but it should have underlined the need for an independent civil aviation regulator.

The attempt to introduce aviation-related professionalism and regulation in the civil aviation sector died with this experiment. Even as civil aviation has grown manifold, our regulatory framework remains archaic. To this writer's mind, it continues on a 'wing and a prayer'.