New Delhi: The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) is tracking down pilots who used bogus certificates to get flying licences since E.K. Bharat Bhushan, an Indian Administrative Service officer who studied at Harvard University, took over as director general in December. In an interview, Bhushan said the regulator is now screening all airline pilot licences it has issued, and even DGCA officials would be disciplined if they are found to have been involved in irregularities. Edited excerpts:
How did this crackdown begin on pilots who used bogus certificates to get flying licences?
Basically what happened was that there was this issue of a private airline pilot (Parminder Kaur Gulati of IndiGo), who was found to have employed wrong landing techniques. And there was an investigation and we grounded her. In the course of this investigation, because it was reported to us that this has happened in the past, I asked my officers to take a good look at her examination record. So it came up that she had not passed the Airline Transport Pilot’s Licence exam (to become a commander from a co-pilot) but had produced a marksheet with fictitious marks and had obtained the licence. This triggered alarm bells.
Firm stance: E.K. Bharat Bhushan. Hemant Mishra/Mint
How many licences are being scanned?
There are 4,500 airline pilot licences which we have issued, and these are being screened methodically. About seven cases have come to light of people (violating norms), all employing the same technique. We have covered 1,700 licences. When I say they are scanned, what we are doing is that we are checking the marksheet and other documents produced by the candidate with the marks the person actually obtained as per the details in the CEO (DGCA’s Central Examination Organisation). Of course, it’s a different matter that they should have been checked in the first place, but it was never done. It was a glaring omission, which now we are checking carefully.
You said you are not a technical person, but your predecessor Kanu Gohain was, and he oversaw the boom phase in Indian aviation during 2004-08. Now we know airports were not licensed, not all airlines were audited for safety, flying schools were not being shut despite negative audit conclusions and US regulator Federal Aviation Administration was about to downgrade India in safety ranking. How much blame does he need to take?
Gohain was one of my predecessors. He has left and is leading a retired life. I am not in the business of apportioning blame. There are agencies in the government to do that job.
When will you complete the scanning?
We cannot hurry. It’s a reasonable pace at which we are doing this. A lot of (the) blame comes to the DGCA, but you must understand that the officers are extremely hard-pressed. We are working with a skeletal workforce, with just about 130 people all over India who are fulfilling certification, surveillance, examinations, licences—just about everything conceivable. So that is a problem we have.
Workforce is the biggest issue in DGCA. Just 130 people and just two in the directorate of training and licensing.
We have the posts created, but it will take time to fill them up.
After the crackdown, will these pilots with forged documents ever fly?
What are the systemic changes in the offing and how soon will they materialize?
There are some changes that we are going to bring about in a week or 10 days. One of the things would be regarding pilots who have obtained training or licences from overseas. We are taking a good hard look at these cases. We are going to check, we have already started doing that, with the regulator of that particular country what is the standing of this particular institution and only after we get a positive reply, only then we will consider them eligible. When we do have an exam system here, the so-called moneyed people to be allowed to go somewhere, get a licence and then come and enter the Indian sector through the backdoor, we certainly don’t want to increase that. There are a few other strategies, but you will have to wait and see.
What kind of independent audit will this be?
The flying schools have come under the scanner. So, we are going to look closely as to what is happening. The best thing to do is to submit them to a thorough expert audit. My time schedule for completing the audit for 40 schools is within the next three months. We will also insist on the details which we called for from these flying schools and these must be submitted monthly within the given proforma, which they have not been doing.
Will their licences be cancelled?
Certainly. Like there are 40 flying schools and not that many flying instructors. How do you run a school without an instructor?
There are several pilots from dubious schools in the Philippines, who are now worried they will come under the axe. If they admit to forgery, will they be pardoned?
Are you talking of a voluntary disclosure scheme? Well, I don’t have any such scheme going. A fraud is a fraud is a fraud. And so far as we are concerned, we are playing with people’s lives and nobody who is not eligible to fly a plane should be in a cockpit. And if he or she has somehow managed to be there, she will have to pay a price.
Recently on a Delhi-bound flight that was about to take off, passengers wanted to check in the cockpit if the pilot was fake or genuine. How do you deal with this public perception?
I think it’s all for the good. If there are rotten eggs, they have to be separated. But I would still like to say there is no need to panic—the numbers are small. We are also looking at other things, like the eligibility criteria to appear for the licences, apart from the marksheet business. We are taking a good hard look at the system of logging flying hours adopted by the flying schools. We are going to have a through audit of the schools. Public perception will only improve if we catch more people. A government committee of external experts is being formed to improve matters in conducting examinations and issuance of licences.
What about DGCA officials? Will heads roll?
If any head is found to be involved in a racket, it will certainly roll. But we can’t just proceed against a guy just because his son or daughter is employed in an airline. But if she or he has obtained a licence through false means, that’s a different thing.
There are over half a dozen top DGCA officers with sons and daughters in the very airlines they regulate. Do you think a DGCA officer is equally liable for the offence if his son or daughter is found guilty?
I wouldn’t say that. But at the same time there is a question of collateral responsibility. This officer sitting in DGCA has obviously used his influence to get his ward in to one of the airlines. That’s an inference you can draw. And I would readily draw that inference.
Will DGCA officials be questioned by the police?
I have asked everyone to be available for questioning, including myself. That’s the rule of the land. The police has started investigation. If anything is required, we will be happy to do that.
Will you refer the matter to higher authorities besides Delhi police?
No, I am not involved in that. Delhi police is doing a competent job and they are on to some leads, as far as I know. But I must say honourable (aviation) minister (Vayalar Ravi) and (aviation) secretary (Nasim Zaidi) have given me full freedom to proceed in order to clean the system, which I am doing.