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Airline safety yet to take off in India

Indian airline operators and government officials admit that India needs at least 25 flight inspectors, reports PR Sanjai.

business Updated: Apr 20, 2008 22:15 IST
PR Sanjai
PR Sanjai
Hindustan Times

At last count, there are 10 commercial airlines, two cargo airlines, 65 non-scheduled operating airline companies and several helicopter operating firms in India, most with growing fleets of aircraft.

Want to know how many flight inspectors India has to conduct safety audits and clear licences for pilots and crew? Four. The global benchmark is one flight inspector for every airline.

Indian airline operators and government officials that Mint spoke to agree that, just based on existing fleet size and the planned surge in new aircraft, India needs at least 25 flight inspectors.

“I cannot deny the fact ... We have three flight inspectors for fixed wings and one for helicopters. But, we are in the process of appointing 15 such inspectors,” said Director General of Civil Aviation Kanu Gohain.

But, Gohain declined to specify a timeframe for the new appointments, saying the Union Public Service Commission, or UPSC, is on the job for selecting flight inspectors. And, the process of appointing new flight inspectors has been on for more than a year now.

Meanwhile, the number of aircraft in the country has doubled from about 300 in 2003-04 to 600 now, as per government data.

India continues to have an admirable safety record for civil aviation though a surge in air travel is only now beginning to unfold. The huge shortage of inspectors has been hobbling India’s aviation growth as the inspectors, in addition to overseeing safety procedures, are also responsible for clearing new planes as well as licences for pilots and crews.

With more domestic carriers going international and an increasing number of regional airlines starting operations, Indian carriers are scheduled to buy 400 planes over the next four to five years. But, these planes can start flying only after flight inspectors first carry out detailed safety audits.

“The main disadvantage of the shortage of flight inspectors is the huge delay in clearing mandatory checks for the airlines,” said an airline’s senior executive who didn’t want to be named. “For example, it is taking at least six months to clear licences for instructors and pilots when it can be done in less than one month.”

Chief flight inspectors are appointed by the DGCA, India’s civil aviation regulator, to ensure that airlines follow set safety procedures while operating flights. They are also responsible for clearing the licences for flight crews and pilots, co-ordinating in accident or incident investigations, and aircraft operations surveillance.

In the US, flight inspectors’ reports are considered critical and even minor lapses are taken seriously. Last week, atleast 3,000 American Airlines flights were cancelled after safety inspectors flagged minor lapses in mandatory pre-flight checks.

Such lapses are at times given the go-by in India, a flight engineer with a domestic carrier said on condition of anonymity. Because Indian airlines are comparatively young--with relatively new aircraft--it might be okay to skip such checks once in a while, he said.

Still, the number of safety audits for an airline will come down because of this shortage and airlines may fall behind the mark of standardised safety practices.

Domestic airline passenger traffic has grown from 32.67 million in 2006 to 43.29 million in 2007, registering a 32.15% rise.

A retired government official still associated with the Ministry of Civil Aviation said the government could nominate executives of private airlines as inspectors to speed up the process as “flight inspectors are actually flyers unlike other DGCA officers.”

DGCA is facing shortages for other staff as well, unable to keep up with the surge in the sector. For example, scheduled domestic air services are now available in 82 airports as against nearly 75 in the year 2006 but there aren’t enought air traffic controllers, or ATCs.

Last year, Union civil aviation minister Praful Patel said the government inducted 371 ATC junior executives in Airports Authority of India, or AAI, and steps are being taken to fill 148 additional posts.