Surprise checks by India’s civil aviation watchdog, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), reveal more than a dozen pilots and cabin crew tested alcohol positive before taking their flights last year.
That’s among the more innocuous of safety protocol violations airlines and charter plane operators seem to routinely indulge in.
The DGCA crackdown found more than 4,000 “deficiencies” in safety operations during 2009—ranging from pilots flying without corrective glasses to airlines and charters operating with no flight safety departments whatsoever.
Checks carried out since then have revealed even more examples of safety negligence, said two DGCA officials on condition of anonymity.
Almost no surveillance checks were carried out before 2009. But with the US regulator Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) threatening to downgrade its safety standards rating for India, DGCA carried out a total of 2,750 surprise checks last year.
“There were 4,005 deficiencies found. We have closed (taken action on) 3,800; 700 are pending and will be closed soon,” said a senior DGCA official, requesting anonymity. “We are going to put them up on the website for everyone to see.”
Thirty-six deficiencies were “category 1”, or serious violations, including pilots flying without corrective glasses and on expired licences.
Show-cause notices were issued to 19 operators, including airlines such as Jet Airways (India) Ltd’s low-cost subsidiary JetLite, Paramount Airways Pvt. Ltd and MDLR Airlines Pvt. Ltd, as reported earlier by Mint.
Other carriers, including Air India, Kingfisher Airlines Ltd, GoAirlines (India) Pvt. Ltd’s GoAir, IndiGo, run by InterGlobe Aviation Pvt. Ltd, SpiceJet Ltd and Jet Airways, were asked to rectify procedural issues.
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About 70 pilots and cabin crew were either suspended or de-rostered.
Even though the deficiencies were discovered in 2009, that isn’t the year they began creeping in. As early as October 2006, an audit by the United Nations-affiliated International Civil Aviation Organization, or Icao, found large gaps in India’s aviation safety mechanisms.
This prompted the FAA to threaten a rating downgrade in 2009—before DGCA finally woke up to carry out its own checks and take action.
Two strikes and out
Experts say it was high time the airlines were told to buckle up. “There is no short cut. You have to police the safety system and see that all requirements and recommended practices are (being) followed,” says Sanat Kaul, a former joint secretary at the ministry of civil aviation, who also represented India at Icao.
Safety check: Aircraft lined up for take-off at Mumbai domestic airport.
“First you are warned, twice reported you are terminated,” the DGCA official quoted above said, referring to the airline crew and pilots who are tested alcohol positive before taking flights.
MDLR Airlines, which operated with one aircraft, has been grounded since the report appeared. The checks revealed the Gurgaon-based carrier suffered from at least 10 major operational deficiencies.
DGCA found there were “no authorized trim staff, no despatch at the airport, no fluorescent jackets for walk around, no Jeppesen updates with pilots, no single-page checklist on board, no manuals available, no emergency procedures or response plan, inadequate knowledge of staff in ops (operations)”.
Jeppesen charts are required for aeronautical charting, navigation and flight planning. They are used, for instance, to identify the path and altitude to be taken in bad weather.
Chennai-based Paramount Airways was found without a safety investigation board, which meant it could not inquire into possible mishaps, report on their causes and identify methods to prevent their recurrence.
And JetLite, DGCA discovered, had a pilot flying after his instrument rating had expired. The instrument rating check is mandatory for flights above 15,000 feet, and is granted on a yearly basis. Pilots cannot fly if their rating has expired.
The crackdown has also revealed some non-scheduled operators have virtually no safety department. At times, something as basic as a flight safety manual is missing.
“They tell the pilot you are the safety department,” said another DGCA official, referring to some non-scheduled operators who make their pilots double up as safety experts instead of hiring trained people. “They are just increasing their fleet, but they are not following the set-up.”
Jindal Group’s chartered flight operations firm India Flysafe Aviation Ltd—which has a five-aircraft fleet under its non-scheduled operator’s licence—had no flight safety department when the checks were made last year. The operator was also found to be short-staffed and lacking in proper emergency response plans. Similarly, the Essar Group-backed Futura Travels Ltd has been found to have more than a dozen shortcomings in its safety department.
Both operators have been asked, said the second DGCA official quoted above, to bring their operations in line with stated norms. Emails sent to Jindal and Essar spokespersons seeking comments remained unanswered.
One of the DGCA officials quoted above said the authority intended to carry out 4,000 checks in the year to March, with an equal number for the following fiscal. DGCA also directed the crew and aircraft maintenance engineers of some operators to be imparted refresher training, the official added.
Captain Mohan Ranganathan, a Chennai-based safety expert with at least 20,000 hours of flying experience, said in cases like pilots flying without corrective glasses, without type rating on a particular aircraft or without valid medical clearances, “insurance becomes invalid if any crew member violates rules and regulations”. In other words, the airline won’t be reimbursed in case of an accident.
Kaul said violations of air traffic rules are also common. He welcomed DGCA’s surveillance exercise. “Now (that) they are doing it, the concerted effort will finally, I hope, work,” he said.
Graphics by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint