Thursday 20 January 2022, 07:24 AM
Growth in Indian Aviation Sector-Now Time to Make it Safer
By Dr. R.K.Tyagi | Bharat Defence Kavach | Publish Date: 7/16/2018 1:23:39 PM
Growth in Indian Aviation Sector-Now Time to Make it Safer

On 10th July, 2018, two IndiGo aircraft in Bengaluru air space with over 300 passengers came so close to each other during the flight that planes’ collusion avoidance alarm got triggered  (separation between them was between 200 to 500 ft. at their closest points).  Both these aircraft were flying at around 750 kms./hr. speed at that point.  Earlier in February, 2018, two Qatar Airways aircraft with more than 500 passengers came dangerously close to each other in Chennai airspace.  On 16th July, 2018, ET Prime also circulated an article “How India slipped below Pakistan and North Korea in Air-safety audit”.  As per this report, many warnings have been issued by ICAO for aviation safety and suggested that India should take this warning seriously and act before it is too late.

Steady growth in air traffic in the last few years is an indicator of sound economic activities in India. Last year, our airline operators handled a total of 11.7 crore passengers, registering a growth of 17% on year to year basis. The remarkable air traffic growth is evident from the fact that seven years ago, in the year 2010, the traffic volume was just 5 crore passengers which is almost half of the traffic in 2017. 

In the month of April 2018, six of Indian airline operators with a fleet of 534 aircraft handled 1.15 crore passengers registering a growth of 26% over corresponding month last year. India has a total of about 400 airports/airstrips and heliports and out of this figure only 129 airports are being operated by the Airport Authority of India. Remaining facilities are non-functional but have tremendous potential of utilization in the coming years. 

Average domestic air passenger growth in India is 18% per annum whereas the international traffic growth rate is 10-12% per annum. This growth is further likely to improve when another 100 or so aircraft are added to the fleet of the operators by next year. Apart from this, firm orders for additional 875 aircraft are placed for acquisition. India’s aviation sector, no doubt today is a sun rise sector. 

One has not to be complacent with the growth in air traffic as increasing activities in the skies demand strong air safety mechanism. Along with the growth in aviation industry it is equally important that adequate safety oversight and supervision mechanism are in place. However, on this front, the efforts and determination by government agencies as well as the aviation industry have been inadequate.

There are safety issues that need to be addressed immediately if we have to sustain air traffic growth in the country. On 20th March 2018, the Delhi high court was informed by the operator of Indira Gandhi International (IGI) Airport that there are as many as 365 obstacles around the aviation hub that may pose threat to aircraft safety. In Another case, the high court also asked DGCA to submit an affidavit on safety and air worthiness of A-320 Neo aircraft. Earlier on 22nd January 2018, aviation ministry’s secretary warned that the Airlines should stop cutting corners and ensure high service quality, also saying that ministry will step in if things don’t change. In the same month, Parliamentary standing committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture had criticized the training procedures adopted by the airlines operators. 

When the DGCA is being directed by the courts to mend its ways on air safety and make those responsible for air safety accountable, the Civil Aviation ministry in a written reply in Parliament on March 13 this year had stated that in 2017 a total of 24,791 nos snags were reported by nine airline operators. Jet Airways reported 9,689 snags, Spice Jet - 4,903, Air India group - 4,563, Go Air - 1,888, Air Asia - 1,367, Vistara - 1,225, Blue dart – 793, Indigo - 340 and Zoom Air - 23. 

While the overall safety ambience is deteriorating, the accident investigations have taken another beating thereby indicating the growing ineffectiveness and system inadequacies of DGCA and the Air Accident Investigation Board (AAIB). On 16 Dec 2015, in an accident, the ground service engineer was sucked into the right engine during start of aircraft at taxiway. At that time 2 cockpit crew, 4 cabin crew and 109 passengers were on board the aircraft. The AAIB took one year and seven months to submit the accident report on 19th July 2017. AAIB submitted 19 recommendations for correction. However, it doesn’t have a system to monitor the implementation. 

On 13th Jan, 2018 a Pawan Hans Helicopter while heading to an oil rig in Mumbai offshore crashed in the high seas along with two pilots and six senior officers of ONGC. It is a classic case of poor safety culture as well as engineering and maintenance deficiencies wherein the oil companies, the DGCA, AAI and also the ministries of civil aviation and petroleum and natural gas are equal stake holders and all together need to act to improve upon the safety ambience in the offshore helicopter operations in the high seas. The report of AAIB, however, is still awaited. 

The major issue in our country is the lack of aviation infrastructure. It is a well known fact that whenever any expansion takes place, infrastructure in civil aviation always lags behind. That is why a number of countries in the world have even fixed their growth rate so that gap between infrastructure and air traffic growth can be bridged. We have seen in 2006-07 when sudden boom of expansion came in civil aviation sector, issues of infrastructure were highlighted. There was lot of air congestion at Mumbai/Delhi which usually took 1 hour 40 minutes to reach destination but the planes had to hover over the airports for 30- 40 minutes in the sky to get landing clearance. This way, the flight time to reach such destination remained almost doubled. There have also been incidents in the sky as well as on the ground. These happen due to shortage of necessary infrastructure in the face of traffic congestion. Our terminal buildings are another major hurdle in the expansion of infrastructure. 

Another glaring example of safety and infrastructure inadequacies can be seen in the UDAN initiative by the government. UDAN is an excellent initiative for providing connectivity to regional airports and towns. But additional steps to enhance air safety measures have not been taken so far as necessary infrastructure for such steps is missing. It is going to be a major safety hurdle in future. DGCA has worked very hard to increase specialized approaches (which is now more than 99%) thus reducing approach and landing (ALA) issues but air fields which have now been selected are without any vertical or instrument guidance system (ILS). Thus efforts done for specialized approaches to reduce ALA cannot be maintained at these airports. Added to this, these airports have got no landing and navigational facilities and get operated in VFR mode (Visual Flight Rules).

Please note that even the visibility at Delhi Airport(it has most sophisticated navigation aids) remains less than 4 Kms on most of the days of the year while in VFR visibility required for smaller/remote will be 5 kms. Thus it will be a major bottleneck for UDAN operations or a safety risk if operators start violating regulations. Security is another major issue at these airports which are mostly without boundary walls and proper fencing. Non standard site strip (only 75 ft. site strike available) will be another added risk factor. 

The DGCA as a regulator is very important contributor to the air safety. We have to maintain international ratings for the safety which require logical and major decisions. The regulator not only makes regulations but implements the same and carries out surveillance to ensure safety standards. In India, the aviation regulator i.e. DGCA functions under the Ministry of Civil Aviation. It has very limited financial and administrative powers including manpower recruitment and deployment. Being subordinate to the Ministry, there may sometimes be interference from the Ministry in its day to day working which affects rational decision making. Being a part of the government, it is not necessary that technical civil aviation professionals will head the same.

To overcome all these difficulties worldwide regulators have been taken out of the administrative control of the Ministries and a Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has been formed in most of the countries. In India, there was a proposal but it has still not seen light of the day. If we have to work for future development of civil aviation and ensure safety of operations, we need to have a CAA, independent of Civil Aviation Ministry with adequate financial and administrative powers and mechanism to take decisions without being influenced and with adequate flexibility to adopt to global changes and good practices. CAA has to be headed by a capable technocrat who can go deep into the complexity and technicalities of civil aviation related issues. 

Another major issue of regulator is the kind regulations it applies. We have various regulations like Aircraft Rules, CAR, AIC etc. in vogue. Basic principle of regulation is that these should be practicable and implementable. This should be clearly defined and subjected to proper interpretation and should be non-conflicting with other regulations. Many of the existing regulations do not meet these criteria and some of them have outlived their utility. Practice with our regulator has been sometimes to copy EASA/FAA/ICAO regulations without even considering its practicability in our work culture and infrastructure available with us. If a regulation cannot be implemented, it gives a wrong impression to the operator who starts taking liberties with other regulations. Therefore, there is a need of the day to revise and relocate all civil regulations under guidance of an Expert Committee which should be represented by all stake holders. 

For a regulator, another major issue is to grant concessions. It is true that sometimes, some deviations from the regulations on a particular operation have to be considered due to some very important reasons. But it is very important to stick to the safety aspects even while taking such decisions. Deviation from safety aspect may lead to corrupt practices. Therefore, all concessions or deviations permitted by the regulator should be in public domain. These should be put on DGCA website (though DGCA website has a concession button but most of the deviations and concessions are not recorded in it). Putting these in public domain will have many advantages - arbitrariness will reduce , person granting concession will examine all aspects of safety issues before doing so and operator will also be reluctant to ask for concessions. 

In our country, another major safety issue is the training. Worldwide training programme for skill development and for enhancing the knowledge and to follow good practices is operators’ own responsibility. But unfortunately, in our country no operator wants to have a training programme unless same is made mandatory by the regulator. For example, engineer’s refresher programs are mandatory so are being conducted but no formal skill development is available for technicians and other staff. We need to have a comprehensive look into training programme as well as training incidents and training instructors. 

The accident investigation is a major tool for safety enhancement and has been so used worldwide. An accident investigation is a very specialized job and requires lot of experience and training for doing so. This work was being done by the DGCA till 2010 and DGCA had developed lot of skill and had experienced and trained investigators. Investigation was of a high standard. However, being a part of a regulator, independence of investigation was always questioned. Practice followed worldwide was to have separate accident investigation bureau. Having same in mind, AAIB was created. But half-hearted efforts could not achieve the goal for which it was created. This resulted in lower standards of investigation. Independence of investigation has been further compromised.

AAIB reports to the Ministry of Civil Aviation at a very junior level. Ministry of Civil Aviation is responsible for commercial operations and controls PSUs and Airlines whereas DGCA which is responsible for accident investigations reports to an additional secretary level officer in the ministry. Thus independence of AAIB has been fully lost. Added to it AAIB is having only a few trained investigators (say one or two). It is impossible to manage country like India with such a few numbers of investigators and that too without regional offices. There is no functional and administrative independence to AAIB plus trained manpower is not available with them. 

It may be appreciated that it takes about 7 to 8 years to train an accident investigator to do a reasonable independent investigation. At the moment, trained manpower is available with DGCA and a few with some of the airlines. If we have to run AAIB properly, AAIB has to be given administrative and financial independence. Chief of AAIB should be at least of the same level as DGCA and he should report preferably to some other Ministry and if not at least to Civil Aviation Minister directly. AAIB should have at least 20 trained investigators (at the moment they should pick up trained investigators from DGCA) and then recruit professional at middle level from industry including defence and train them for 5/6 years to become independent investigators. AAIB must have 4/5 regional offices and must be provided with adequate infrastructure in the form of laboratories, hangar and other distinct facilities. 

To sum up, it is now time when we take the business of aviation safety seriously and make Indian skies safer. It is a time when stake holders think of disruptive changes and build the safety institutions around technical knowledge competence and adequate empowerment to DGCA as well as AAIB.

Dr. R.K.Tyagi

(The author is an aviation expert and President of Aeronautical Society of India, former CMD of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. and  former CMD of  Pawanhans Ltd.)





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