Aviation malfunctioning never fails to mesmerise the media. This attention, however, lasts only till the next crisis, and there is seldom any attempt to examine the underlying causes of the frequent recurrence of such episodes. The basic flaw in the functioning of the civil aviation sector lies in the manner of decision-making. Decisions are taken individually and in an ad hoc manner, instead of being institutional and based on collective wisdom.
In this context, two types of incidents can be examined: flights not taking off despite the installation of the state-of-the-art Category (CAT) III-B Instrument Landing Systems (ILS) at the Indira Gandhi International (IGI) Airport in New Delhi; and the crashes of VIP aircraft that have claimed so many lives, the most recent being that of Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy.
The CAT III-B ILS permits operations in 50 metres visibility. It was installed at the IGI airport in December 2005 after which aircraft of foreign airlines started using it. However, domestic operators were reluctant, as it meant considerable investment on pilot training for operations of only a few days in the year (during winter) at only one airport.
Under pressure, the State-owned Indian Airlines took the lead in pilot-training. However, this wasn’t followed by other airlines till the government applied pressure in December 2008 by not clearing morning schedules of airlines whose pilots were not CAT III compatible. As a result, most aircraft of all airlines now are compatible with CAT III-A ILS.
But even if aircraft have pilots and equipment compatible with CAT-III, these can’t take off from New Delhi if the destination airports are fog-bound. You don’t need to be an expert to realise that the Airports Authority of India (AAI) should have installed CAT III equipment in many other airports. The Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), should have insisted on this. Strangely enough, this regulatory authority was not invested with powers of overseeing the installation and functioning of the navigation and communication equipment of airports. Instead, it was the Ministry of Civil Aviation that took upon itself this task and judge the success of the AAI by the profits it made.
For example, around 2000, the AAI utilised only about half of its budget, investing the remaining in bank deposits that grew to around Rs 2,000 crore. On the other hand, there had been a visible improvement in terminal buildings, not only in private sector airports, but also in those constructed by the AAI. Sadly, there is no one to pressure the airport authorities to invest in comprehensive plans of upgradation of equipment.
Now to the issue of crashes of VIP aircraft. The report of the committee constituted by the Civil Aviation Ministry to look into the crash of Y.S.R. Reddy pointed to deficiencies in maintenance and maintenance personnel. The civil aviation set-up in Andhra Pradesh had only one maintenance engineer. The helicopter pilot, who was on deputation from the air force, was the only one to take decisions with no one to oversee his functioning. Similar situations exist with aircraft maintained for VIPs in other states as well. The DGCA should lay down more stringent conditions and ensure rigorous inspections with greater frequency.
This brings us to the role of the DGCA. While the government has created independent regulators for various sectors such as telecom and electricity, the DGCA continues to remain an ‘attached office’ of the Ministry of Civil Aviation, with the DGCA reporting to the Secretary, Civil Aviation. The result: whenever the ministry comes under pressure, such pressure is transmitted to the DGCA officers. It requires great courage and integrity on their part to be able to withstand these pressures. This state of affairs makes autonomous functioning of the DGCA’s office exceptionally difficult.
That the ministry should not assume a controlling role is stating the obvious. Those who man the ministry do not possess the training, knowledge or exposure to take operational decisions. On the other hand, independent regulatory authorities, assisted by specialists and supported by trained and experienced personnel, are in the best position to take such decisions.
P.C. Sen is former Chairman and Managing Director, Air India
The views expressed by the author are personal