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Praful Must clear Mess in Aviation Sector

New Delhi. The lack of infrastructure to support the high growth in the aviation sector has left some big holes which have created doubts about the safety standards of the sector which needs to be examined by the investigators looking into the causes which led to Mangalore crash while carrying out their investigation. The big gaps include the shortage of pilots which has forced the airlines to employ over 500 pilots of foreign origin to fly planes.

The other gaps include lack of examiners to certify pilots, lack of training facilities and shortage of skilled ground engineers to certify the planes before they get into air. There is also a shortage of controllers working for airline traffic control. All these have important bearings on safety of flying.

It is unfortunate that a pilot of foreign origin was involved in the Mangalore crash. No one would like to pronounce him guilty before the inquiry is over. The fact remains however that many pilots of foreign origin have been involved in some incidents and the airline regulator has been suggesting their replacement with local pilots which the airlines are finding difficult to achieve.

One principle of sound management in airlines is that the training of crew including pilots and maintenance staff has to take place before the planes start arriving. But in the mad race for growth, airlines in India in the private as well as public sectors started looking for staff after the planes had arrived, forcing them to hire foreign pilots or poach from older airlines. In this process, state owned Indian Airlines and Air India suffered the maximum.

The same can be said about the ground facilities.

The expansion of runways, installation of radars and other infrastructure which is necessary for safety were also undertaken after the Indian skies had become crowded. The modernisation of airports is yet to be completed and many airports have no approach radars to guide the pilots in final landing. Mangalore is one of the airports which did not have this instrument, though it had been cleared for international flights.

Another point to be noted is that most of the air crashes have taken place in India at small airports. This is not to suggest that bigger airports are safer, but one needs to be aware of the fact that larger airports have fewer incidents as compared to smaller airports which are upgraded to accommodate larger planes. Most of these airfields are located in crowded areas and face problems while extending the runways.

This aspect obviously needs to be looked into. Above all is the status of Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), which acts as regulatory agency as well as licensing authority for airlines, also needs clarification.

The growth of population around the airports, despite regulations to the contrary, is also a hazard. Many a time, politicians support illegal colonies to garner votes; one hopes that will be held guilty some day.

DGCA is a department of the Ministry of Civil Aviation which also runs airlines besides regulating industry. There has been a demand from the industry as well as experts for making it an independent body in line with regulators in other industries.

This is also the case in countries like USA as it is felt that there can be times when the interest of the operator may clash with a regulator. Many times the regulator has chosen to ignore violation of safety standards by state-owned airlines particularly when they are meeting situations like strike by the staff.

The regulator is also responsible for fixing regulations governing rules regarding hours the staff is expected to fly, details regarding permissible snags , examination of pilots and rules regarding age up to which they can fly or perform other functions. In many cases, the regulator has relaxed conditions regarding age and training period to enable the airlines to meet the situation created by shortage of well-trained staff.

One can give a lot of credit to the present Aviation Minister Praful Patel for the expansion of aviation sector through de-regulation but in the process he has also created a problem of inadequate infrastructure to serve the industry.

Time has come when he should take steps for making up the shortfalls to make flying safe and industry viable. He has the first responsibility to set the house in order for the state-owned Air India. The merger of Indian Airlines and Air India is essentially an exercise in books as on ground the two airlines continue to function as separate entities with no coordination in operation or in commercial dealings.

Both airlines have had different fleets and staff, and it is difficult for instance, for a person trained in do9mestic operations to take over international operations in a short span.

It remains an operation by bureaucrats for bureaucrats who get special facilities and treatment like upgrading while the paying public is neglected.

Professionalisation of airlines is a non-starter and the Government role is limited to providing funds to meet the mounting losses and lectures on better management which make no difference to operations or its working. The Minister has offered to resign accepting moral responsibility for the crash; instead he should be asked to clear the mess in the entire industry as the crash is only a part of that mess.

The author is an aviation analyst.

© India Strategic