New Delhi: The US aviation regulator will begin on Tuesday a final audit of its Indian counterpart, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), on safety oversight that will be key to the future international expansion plans of Indian airlines.
The two-day audit is the culmination of a review begun by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) earlier this year after the International Civil Aviation Organization, or Icao, found India lacking in around 70 areas, including shortage of flight safety inspectors and other technical personnel.
Testing times: Director general of civil aviation Nasim Zaidi. DGCA has tightened monitoring and oversight measures since FAA’s March audit. Rajkumar / Mint
Since the review began, no new direct flights to the US from India have taken off. No new code share agreements have been approved between Indian carriers such as Jet Airways (India) Ltd and National Aviation Co. of India Ltd-run Air India, and US airlines such as United Airlines and US Airways, according to officials at the DGCA and the civil aviation ministry.
Both Jet Airways and Air India connect cities in the US and have sought expansion of code-share agreements with US carriers that will depend on the audit. The outcome is also crucial for airlines such as SpiceJet Ltd and Paramount Airways Pvt. Ltd that are preparing to fly international routes starting next year.
Code sharing refers to a ticket marketing practice among airlines that allows carriers to share the two characters in codes used in airline reservation systems. This helps customers purchase a single ticket on a journey that has two flights such as a New Delhi-London leg and a London-New York one on two different airlines.
If the FAA downgrades its safety standards rating for India to so-called category II after completing the review, no new services by Indian carriers can be started to the US. Once placed in category II, no new code-share agreements can also be allowed. Climbing back to category I, the highest class of safety, could take months or years.
Israel, for instance, was downgraded to category II late last year by the FAA on similar grounds.
“It is essential that we keep category I because we will not be able to enter US in a downgrade,” said the chief of an Indian carrier who did not want to be named because of it being a regulatory issue. “Further, existing ones (flights) will have to bear severe checks every time the flight lands and takes off from the US. Schedules will be frozen, and no new routes will be available.”
To be sure, FAA’s safety audits do not necessarily mean that airlines of a particular country are not safe to fly. The audits are aimed at ascertaining if the regulatory authorities are following international safety oversight procedures.
The FAA team, said a civil aviation ministry official who asked not to be named, will review all the steps India has taken to fulfil its commitment on safety oversight. The first FAA assessment was conducted 16-20 March in New Delhi.
“Whatever we had to do, we have done,” the ministry official said.
Between January and now, several steps have been implemented. This included selection of around 50 flight safety inspectors, setting up a nation-wide surveillance programme, reviving 132 lapsed technical positions at DGCA and the creation of 427 new ones.
Approval has been granted to fill 73 technical positions with consultants until regular recruitment is completed, and to procure accident investigation kits, according to a civil aviation ministry note reviewed by Mint. By 1 June, the note says, 18 of the 19 issues raised by the FAA had been addressed. One requires the amendment of aircraft rules for which a note has been sent to the law ministry.
DGCA, under Nasim Zaidi, has also moved to improve safety standards and enforce safety rules.
Aviation safety consultant Mohan Ranganathan cited the example of an airport operator using grooved tyres for runway friction testing, which was against international specifications because it gives an inflated friction reading, dangerous for aircraft landing on wet runways.
Corrective action was taken within a month of DGCA being apprised of this, Ranganathan said. “Here, I see action being taken, while earlier even when evidence was given, no action was taken,” he added.
Last week, DGCA also moved to decentralize the organization and create regional command centres, in line with a suggestion by FAA for the creation of a senior-level regional structure, the aviation ministry official mentioned earlier said.
Officers of the rank of deputy director general will head the command centres for the north, south, west and east which are being strengthened with airworthiness and air safety divisions, said a DGCA official who didn’t want to be named.
Ranganathan said the move will allow for “better monitoring action instead of everything being held up at headquarters (in New Delhi)”.