New Delhi: The aviation ministry may ask former director general of civil aviation (DGCA) E.K. Bharat Bhushan to produce a copy of the original papers that he claims have gone missing from a file after an investigation in the regulator’s office yielded nothing, two government officials said.
The ministry had removed Bhushan as DGCA on 10 July, after which he had written to the new director general, Prashant Sukul, saying he had written some orders to be issued to Kingfisher Airlines Ltd which have been removed from the file and the matter should be investigated by the new regulator.
The letter, reviewed by Mint, has been attached with a plain sheet of paper, which Bhushan says was the order he had written. The plain paper does not show it was received by anyone in the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, nor is there a log in the DGCA’s secretariat for the sheet.
“We will ask him to provide us with a copy of the original files, which he is saying are missing. A plain paper with the text is not acceptable,” said one of the government officials who declined to be named.
Bhushan declined to comment.
The letter written by Bhushan had cast an impression that his removal from the post was linked to potential suspension of Kingfisher’s license, but the events leading up Bhushan’s dismissal on 10 July paint a very different picture.
In November, DGCA had conducted a safety review of airlines from a financial perspective and found shortcomings in Kingfisher, Air India and IndiGo (run by InterGlobe Aviation Pvt. Ltd).
Kingfisher Airlines, which is facing a severe financial crisis, has delayed salaries, grounded aircraft and cancelled its flights.
DGCA had issued a show-cause notice to Kingfisher on 31 January on the safety audit of November.
The airline had then provided the regulator with various timelines on which it would meet all the deficiencies and provided a curtailed schedule, which was approved by the regulator.
On 22 May, DGCA deputy director, air safety, Amit Gupta, moved another update on Kingfisher’s operations to his superior deputy director general Lalit Gupta, apprising him that, “Action on short-term deficiencies has been complied. Action on long-term deficiencies is progressing as per the target dates given by the airline,” according to the file notings reviewed by Mint.
Lalit Gupta moved the note further up to Bhushan, recommending “in view of the satisfactory compliance shown by scheduled domestic airlines as indicated in ‘x’ above (Amit Gupta’s note), we may close the action on short-term deficiencies and inform the airline accordingly. If agreed, we may take quarterly review on long-term deficiencies so that they are also complied by the airlines on stipulated target date”.
Bhushan accepts the suggestion with a “yes” on the file to Lalit Gupta’s noting and clears it the same day.
Lalit Gupta then issued a letter, reviewed by Mint, to Kingfisher three days later on 25 May.
“Reference is made to action taken report submitted by Kingfisher Airlines with regard to discrepancies observed... The same has been examined by this office and found to be in order. However, Kingfisher must ensure that in-house system is made more proactive to ensure that the discrepancies observed on safety issues do not reoccur. This office would quarterly review to ensure that long-term deficiencies are being addressed as per target dates,” Lalit Gupta said, signing off the letter as being issued on behalf or “for director general of civil aviation” Bharat Bhushan.
Amit Gupta then sent another “status update” on Kingfisher, according to a person familiar with the matter, on 9 July after the weekend.
The status update said the airline was left with about 400 of the 700 pilots, about 35 aircraft were left in its total fleet of 66 as of 2011 and salaries had not been paid since February.
“Why did he not take action then? Why was he waiting for 9th July? What happened between June and for six months since audit? Kingfisher crisis was already escalating. Salaries were not coming. Several aircraft were taken away,” said one of the government official cited above. “If safety was an issue, he should have taken action. He didn’t need the ministry’s permission to suspend a licence on safety grounds.”
The update on Kingfisher was paraphrased by Bhushan in his letter to Sukul as well in which he mentions that the salaries have not been paid and, therefore, the licence be suspended.
“On 9th of July 2012, I had received the file on Kingfisher’s financial surveillance and including an analysis of the situation by Dy Director Air Safety, Amit Gupta, and forwarded by DDG (Air Safety) Sh. Lalit Gupta which formed part of the file. On the same day I recorded a note ordering notice to be served on the airline that unless they clear a substantial portion of the dues including employees’ salaries within 15 days of receipt of the notice, their operational permit may be suspended. A plain paper copy of my noting is enclosed for reference,” Bhushan said in his 14 July letter.
On 6 July, aviation minister Ajit Singh returned from his trip to London and had conversations with higher authorities in the government, seeking an explanation on Bhushan being given an extension till December when the aviation ministry had already sent a file in February to DGCA seeking to appoint India’s permanent representative to the International Civil Aviation Organization, Arun Mishra, as the new director general when his term finishes and returns to India in July.
“He had told the authorities that they had the weekend to clear Mishra, or he was free to take a decision on his own,” the second government official said. Mishra’s name was not cleared by 9 July as the weekend ended.
Even if, said the person familiar with the matter and cited above, Bhushan would have issued the show-cause notice on 9 July, like that issued on 31 January, the airline would have had 15 days to reply.
“The airline would have come back again with another curtailed schedule, as it has in the past, and the cycle would have followed again. It’s a regular procedure.”
A suspension of the airline’s licence would have only been taken after the reply, he said.
Mishra’s name was cleared by the appointments committee of the cabinet as the new director general on 16 July and the order is likely to be issued this week.
“The DG does not make out the note himself. There is someone who has to be dictated. There have to be three or four people involved in his secretariat in this process. DG can’t take it out on his own. He is a generalist,” said Shakti Lumba, a former vice-president at low-cost airline IndiGo and Air India.