India is running the risk of a downgrade of its civil aviation sector by the US Federal Aviation Administration (USFAA) with only 39 flight operation inspectors at the disposal of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA).
Manpower shortage had earlier led to a downgrade of India’s civil aviation sector by the USFAA in January 2014 sighting safety oversight by the regulator DGCA. A year before the downgrade, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the US aviation regulator USFAA had mandated DGCA to have a minimum of 72 flight operation inspectors (FOIs).
According to information available on the DGCA website, this number has nearly halved with only 32 FOIs for aeroplanes and seven for helicopters responsible for the world’s third largest growing aviation sector which handles around 20 million fliers annually.
A senior civil aviation ministry official requesting anonymity said, “Many crucial departments, such as air navigation and flight inspection, are falling short of manpower once again. This can any day put us at risk of being downgraded by the USFAA once again.”
“The problem may be further exacerbated with more FOIs resigning as their one-year contract comes to an end with many not planning to extend it,” said a second ministry official who also didn’t want to be identified.
One of the main reasons for downgrading India’s civil aviation sector in January 2014—that was lifted 15 months later—by the USFAA was that DGCA had not appointed FOIs in proportion to the size of the Indian aviation industry. The USFAA in its safety audit in 2013 found 33 inadequacies in DGCA largely related to compromising on air safety.
The second civil aviation ministry official quoted above added that the attrition level for FOIs is rising as “they generally are unwilling to take up this role due to lack of proper work culture at the DGCA and also because these pilots are not allowed to fly which is desired as they need to fly to keep their flying licence valid”.
The USFAA had followed the ICAO’s observation concerning lack of manpower and safety oversight by DGCA before downgrading over lack of trained officials and full-time flight operation inspectors. The USFAA restored India’s category I rating in March 2015 after DGCA hired 55 FOIs on contract for a year.
The first civil aviation ministry official quoted above added that DGCA has to ensure adequate safety and secure mechanism to protect the country’s air space as India’s aviation market has been growing, making it more vulnerable.
India’s aviation sector in March clocked a growth of 27.4%, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). India’s growth rate according to IATA is over six times more than that of the US, which with 4.1% was the second fastest growing market in the world.
Queries emailed to a civil aviation ministry spokesperson on 10 May remained unanswered.
Experts believe that the downgrade threat is real and imminent.
Amber Dubey, partner and India head of aerospace and defence at consultancy KPMG, said that with growing congestion in the skies and on the ground, safety is paramount.
“Any slip up can set us back by a decade. DGCA needs to fill up the FOI vacancies by offering necessary incentives. The January 2014 downgrade was a humiliating experience for India. It took 15 months to come out of that. With growing focus on international traffic, a second downgrade can be devastating for Indian carriers and our national pride,” said Dubey.
Growth in the India domestic market is being propelled by the comparatively strong economic backdrop as well as sizeable increases in services, IATA said last month.
Indian domestic airlines carried 23 million passengers in the first three months of 2016 compared with 18.5 million during the corresponding period last year thereby registering a growth of 24.03%, according to data released by DGCA.
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