Air Safety issues can be divided into three sections: near-misses, incidents and accidents. Near-misses are cases where an accident is averted and generally goes unreported. Incidents are those that take place but are of a minor nature. While we are lucky we have not had many accidents in the last few years, the number of incidents and near-misses has gone up. This is because our safety oversight functions have been allowed to decay due to low priority given to safety.
Our aircraft rules contain provisions for notification, investigation and reporting of incidents. But our legislation does not provide for a much needed independent investigator of accidents as the Director General Civil Aviation (DGCA) is the designated investigative authority for them. For very serious accidents aircraft rules do confer upon the Civil Aviation Ministry to appoint an ad hoc entity, the ‘committee of inquiry or court of inquiry’. These, too, are assisted by DGCA officials.
However, all reports have to be submitted for ministerial approval and are, therefore, not independent. Meanwhile, incidents and near-misses have increased, many going unreported.
The Civil Aviation Ministry supervises two major agencies: the DGCA and the Airport Authority of India (AAI). Both are directly concerned with air safety. While the DGCA is the licensor, regulator as well as the implementer of safety, the AAI provides the entire air traffic service over the country, including a vast oceanic air space. Both these institutions have not kept pace with the growth of air traffic.
There are huge vacancies within the existing strength of technical staff with both these organisations. In the DGCA, vacancy levels run as high as 50 per cent in some of its directorates. In the AAI, the shortage of air traffic controllers is becoming a major safety issues. As traffic movements increase, the need to have more controllers is absolutely necessary.
Training has also been a causality because of shortage of critical manpower. Recruitment of highly skilled technical staff on lower than market salaries through an excruciating entry process — Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) recruitments — is not only painful but self-defeating.
India’s air safety record has been traditionally good. The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) of the US conducts a survey of countries whose aircrafts come into their country. They have categorised the countries into Category I and II with Category I countries being those with whom they have no safety problems. Category II are those countries they consider whose safety procedures are inadequate. Category II countries have some restrictions placed on them. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) also conducts safety audits of all member countries. The US has always rated India in its Category I while the ICAO had given India a clean chit. However, of late, the FAA has issued a notice to downgrade India to Category II and the ICAO’s 2007 safety audit report, too, is reportedly full of reservations.
Media reports about near-misses may have their individual background, but they are a symptom of a growing malaise. The sudden growth of air traffic in India has been a great story and is a manifestation of India as a growing economy. But to maintain it, there is a need for sustained growth in the safety apparatus with a proper plan. Any shortfall in it can prove to be a disaster.
It will also put on hold future plans of our airlines to grow. Obsession with airlines and their problems and policy changes to be made according to issues including security is only a prescription to disaster. If India is downgraded to Category II by the FAA, it will be a slap in the face of Indian aviation. It is high time we put our house in order and safety be given the priority it deserves.
Sanat Kaul is former representative of India to ICAO and is current chairman, International Foundation of Aviation and Development.