Mumbai: At last count, there were 10 commercial airlines, two cargo airlines, 65 non-scheduled operating airline companies and several helicopter operating firms in India, most with growing fleets of aircraft.
Want to know how many flight inspectors India has to conduct safety audits and clear licences for pilots and crew? Four.
Meanwhile, the global benchmark, based on fleet size? One flight inspector for every airline.
A file photo of Air India engineers inspecting a Boeing 777-200 LR. The process of appointing new flight inspectors has been on for more than a year now
Indian airline operators and government officials that Mint spoke to agree that, just based on existing fleet size and the planned surge in new aircraft, India needs at least 25 flight inspectors.
“I cannot deny the fact... We have three flight inspectors for fixed wings and one for helicopters. But, we are in the process of appointing 15 such inspectors,” said director general of civil aviation (DGCA) Kanu Gohain, who concedes there is an acute shortage.
But, he declined to specify a time frame by when the appointments would be completed, saying the Union Public Service Commission, or UPSC, is on the job for selecting flight inspectors. And, the process of appointing new flight inspectors has been on for more than a year now.
Meanwhile, the number of aircraft in the country has doubled from about 300 in 2003-04 to 600 now, as per civil aviation ministry data.
India continues to have an admirable safety record for civil aviation though a surge in air travel is only now beginning to unfold. Meanwhile, the huge shortage of inspectors, primarily due to procedural delays in making appointments, has been hobbling India’s aviation growth as the inspectors, in addition to ensuring that airlines follow safety procedures, are also responsible for clearing new planes as well as licences for pilots and crews.
With more domestic carriers going international and an increasing number of regional airlines starting operations, Indian carriers are scheduled to buy 400 planes over the next four-five years. But, these planes can start flying only after flight inspectors first carry out detailed safety audits.
“The main disadvantage of the shortage of flight inspectors is the huge delays in clearing mandatory checks for the airlines. For example, it is taking at least six months to clear licences for instructors and pilots when it can be done in less than one month,” said an airline’s senior executive, who didn’t want to be identified.
Says another person close to the civil aviation ministry: “With (just) three inspectors for commercial airlines, the government cannot cope with the speed of Indian aviation growth.”
Chief flight inspectors are appointed by DGCA, India’s civil aviation regulator, to ensure airlines follow set safety procedures while operating flights. They are also responsible for clearing the licences for flight crews and pilots, coordinating in accident or incident investigations, and aircraft operations surveillance.
In the US, flight inspectors’ reports are considered critical and even minor lapses are taken seriously. Last week, at least 3,000 American Airlines flights were cancelled after safety inspectors flagged minor lapses in mandatory pre-flight checks.
Such lapses are at times given the go-by in India, said a flight engineer with a domestic carrier, who didn’t want to be named. Because Indian airlines are comparatively young—with relatively new aircraft—it might be okay to skip such checks once in a while, he maintained.
Still, “the number of safety audits for an airline will come down because of this shortage and airlines may fall behind the mark of standardized safety practices,” a senior executive with a Mumbai-based airline said on condition that he would not be identified.
Domestic airline passenger traffic has grown from 32.67 million in 2006 to 43.29 million in 2007, a 32.15% rise.
According to the DGCA website, Capt. H.Y. Samant is the chief flight operations inspector, Department of Flight Inspection. His responsibilities, it says, include all matters relating to flight crew licensing/checks; associating with air safety in accident/incident investigation and safety measures; and aircraft operations surveillance (both domestic and international).
The other flight inspectors for fixed wing planes are Arvind Kathpalia and Capt. Dhillon.
A retired government official still closely associated with the ministry of civil aviation said the government can nominate executives of private airlines as inspectors to speed up the process as “flight inspectors are actually flyers unlike other DGCA officers.”
DGCA is facing a shortages of other staff as well, unable to keep up with the surge in the sector. For example, scheduled domestic air services are now available in 82 airports as against nearly 75 in 2006, but there aren’t enough air traffic controllers, or ATCs.
Last year, Union civil aviation minister Praful Patel said the government inducted 371 ATC junior executives in the Airports Authority of India, or AAI, and steps are being taken to fill 148 additional posts.
“AAI is also utilizing the services of retired ATC officers whenever possible. It has also been programmed to recruit 100 ATC officers every six months by AAI for a period of two years to meet the additional requirement,” Patel had said.