New Delhi: The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has lowered India’s aviation safety ranking, finding regulatory oversight to be inadequate, in a move that would impede efforts by Air
India Ltd and Jet Airways (India) Ltd to expand flights to American destinations and subject them to stricter scrutiny.
India’s ranking has been downgraded to so-called category II from category I, said Prabhat Kumar, head of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), after meeting a FAA delegation that flew to New Delhi to inform Indian government officials about the decision by the US aviation regulator.
Aviation minister Ajit Singh slammed the FAA decision as “very disappointing and also surprising”, given that India had taken steps to correct deficiencies pointed out by the regulator after an audit of air safety systems enforced by DGCA.
The decision reduces India to a safety category that includes Ghana, Indonesia, Uruguay and Zimbabwe, and means that Air India and Jet Airways—the two Indian airlines that fly to US destinations—wouldn’t be allowed to expand flights and their existing flights would be subjected to additional checks. They would have to snap ties such as any code-sharing arrangements with US airlines.
Shares of Jet Airways, India’s largest listed airline, plunged 3.94% to Rs.236.45 each on BSE on a day the benchmark Sensex edged up 0.08% to 20,513.85 points.
A category II safety rating means that the civil aviation authority does not comply with International Civil Aviation Organization (Icao) safety standards and is deficient in one or more areas, such as technical expertise, trained personnel and record-keeping or inspection procedures, according to FAA.
While a downgrade does not reflect on the safety of India’s airlines—the rankings measure the ability of the Indian regulator to follow safety processes and not that of the airlines—India risks being perceived in a negative light by aviation authorities in other countries.
Last year, Air India faced hurdles in launching flights to the Japanese city of Osaka against the backdrop of ongoing safety audits.
The Icao assessment of India’s rating on the Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme (USOAP) is above the global average, and under USOAP, the organization takes into account eight critical elements—legislation, organization, licensing, operation, airworthiness, accident investigation, air navigation and aerodromes, the aviation minister said.
“The only area in which India lacks marginally in effective implementation of a critical element is ‘organization’. For this, India has already created 75 posts of chief flight operations inspector (CFOI), deputy CFOIs, senior CFOIs and FOIs. After the recruitment, it is expected that effective implementation in this element also would rise much above the global average,” Singh added.
Mint reported on 15 November that the threat of a downgrade of India’s air safety ranking was imminent, citing a government official who didn’t want to be named, after a FAA audit of DGCA in September.
Nearly half a dozen members of FAA flew to New Delhi on short-notice visas to explain the decision to Kumar, the DGCA chief, in a 40-minute meeting on Friday, said a government official who requested anonymity.
FAA was supposed to communicate the decision on 24 January, but probably decided to delay an announcement so that its officials could brief the Indian regulator in person, said the official.
Kumar and aviation ministry officials then briefed Singh, the external affairs ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office.
An Air India official said the airline’s entry into Star Alliance would not be affected by the FAA decision. The global club of airlines has its own safety audit systems in place, the official said.
Jet Airways did not offer any comment on how the downgrade would affect its code-sharing agreement with United. It also did not comment on the impact the move would have on its agreement with Etihad Airways PJSC, which has bought a 24% stake in Jet.
Abu Dhabi, where Etihad Airways is based, has been granted the status of a US immigration point outside of the US and Etihad passengers don’t need to clear immigration again when they land in any US city on an Etihad flight.
The US will continue to work with DGCA to identify the remaining steps necessary to regain Category I status for India, FAA said in a statement.
“US and Indian aviation officials have developed an important working relationship as our countries work to meet the challenges of ensuring international aviation safety,” said FAA administrator Michael Huerta.
A member of the government-mandated safety council, formed in the aftermath of the Mangalore air crash that killed 158 people in May 2010, said the government had not heeded several letters sent by the council about the risk of a downgrade in India’s safety ranking.
“I am not surprised,” said Mohan Ranganathan, who sits on the Civil Aviation Safety Advisory Council.
“The deceit of DGCA and aviation ministry has finally been exposed. Blatant abuse of regulations in safety and flight standards...were swept aside for political and commercial considerations. The last two years have seen the lowest in integrity levels. Persons responsible should be held accountable and not let off lightly for bringing this shame upon India,” he said.
Ranganathan said FAA will now likely share its findings with regulators elsewhere such as the European Union.
“It’s going to hit us badly. There will be surprise checks on Indian airlines like Air India and Jet Airways,” he said.
The external affairs ministry played down the downgrade and said the recent diplomatic spat over an Indian consular official accused of visa fraud in the US had no bearing on the FAA move. The official, Devyani Khobragade, who served as India’s deputy consul general in New York, was arrested briefly in December; she has since returned to India.
“This is a technical matter that was being addressed by both our technical authorities for quite some time and continues to be addressed by them in a technical and professional manner,” said Syed Akbaruddin, a spokesperson said for the ministry of external affairs.
A US-based aviation professional close to FAA said the US state department had not been keen on the downgrade.
“FAA made a strong plea at state (department) and raised the question about who would be responsible if an accident happens. This made some re-consider. State explained to India that if a downgrade takes place, India should not link it to what happened in NY (New York). DGCA was often late in moving and not all were on the same page in India,” this person said, asking not to be named, “This is a huge setback.”
The insurance premiums of Indian airlines and aircraft leasing rates could also be impacted as a result of this downgrade, thereby increasing the cost burden, the person added.
FAA also downgraded safety ranking of US allies such as Mexico in 2010 and Israel in 2008.
“Instead of the usual finger pointing...all concerned Indian aviation organization members need to act swiftly and proactively, as a team, to revert the status of India to category I as early as possible,” said former Jet Airways chief executive officer Steve Forte, who is based in New York. “Perhaps the GoI (Government of India) could officially request the FAA to contribute a team member to act as an adviser. This would result in the FAA getting more involved in Indian aviation issues and more knowledgeable on the difficulties involved in their resolution.”
Elizabeth Roche contributed to this story.