Passengers of an airline in financial trouble have reason to worry a little more about flight safety. In India, it’s common knowledge that most airlines are in the red. Of late, reports of near-hits, landing mishaps and dangerous miscommunication between pilots and ground control have also been frequent. Both have contributed equally to passengers’ fears. What’s less known—and cause for greater worry—is that the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), responsible for overseeing aviation safety, is itself a distressed organisation: 528 of the 924 posts at DGCA lie vacant. So at a time when most airlines need watching, the airline safety controller is woefully short-staffed. Part of the problem, says Arun Mishra, the current director general, is that there aren’t any recruitment rules for 427 posts in job Groups A, B and C, created in 2009. Recruitment rules for some other posts too, he says, need amendment.
Industry experts say the DGCA staff crunch raises huge questions about aviation safety in the country. Last year, the US Federal Aviation Administration had threatened to downgrade India in its international aviation safety assessment programme. The chief reason: DGCA’s staff shortage. Some even say the shortage is responsible for pilots with fake licences getting jobs. “The shortage has been critical for some time now and needs urgent action if efficiency has to be maintained,” says a former pilot and aviation safety expert. “All airlines will try to cut corners when finances are bad and it is the DGCA’s job to be watchful.”
The DGCA has been coping by outsourcing some of its work: the licensing of air traffic control (ATC) officers has been given to the Airports Authority of India (AAI). It is also looking to employ retired aviation experts as consultants for 114 critical safety and oversight positions across the country. The Union ministry of civil aviation proposes a more permanent solution: creating a “civil aviation authority” (CAA) to replace the DGCA. Last week, K.C. Venugopal, the minister of state for civil aviation, told the Rajya Sabha that “the new authority will have financial and administrative flexibility to meet the functional requirements of an effective safety oversight system and will be created through an act of Parliament.” The idea is for the new body to overcome the organisational constraints—such as lack of adequate financial and administrative power—that prevented DGCA from retaining manpower and fulfilling its operations.
“The CAA framework will help the regulator recruit flight safety inspectors and other employees by offering competitive pay. We require more staff at DGCA for examining flight safety and other training requirements. After the creation of CAA, we’ll be able to do that,” Venugopal told the Rajya Sabha. The sooner that happens, the less worried airline passengers will be.
Close calls midair, more often than you knew
Union civil aviation minister Ajit Singh recently said that, in the last three years, 65 “incidents of two or more moving aircraft coming in proximity” took place over Indian skies. The minister could be way off target: air traffic records for 2011 from Mumbai airport (left) alone show 54 incidents. Experts say officials fudge data to avoid penal salary cuts and that such fudging has been on for at least four years. Lack of oversight by DGCA is also being blamed.