Regulator wants better safety for VIP planes

Regulator wants better safety for VIP planes

New Delhi: State-run aircraft operators who fly VIPs will soon have to meet minimum safety standards such as having dedicated departments for engineering, operations and quality control, manned by technically competent staff, and pilots with minimum flying experience.

Aviation regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has drafted the new guidelines in the wake of Andhra Pradesh chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy’s death last year in a helicopter crash, and hopes to implement them soon.

Experts said the move would have only limited impact as most VIPs fly on privately owned or chartered aircraft, which are not obliged to follow DGCA’s guidelines.

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VIP flights carry the speaker of the Lok Sabha, the deputy chairperson of the Rajya Sabha, the chief justice of India, governors, chief ministers, Union and state-level cabinet ministers and dignitaries allocated the highest levels of security, according to DGCA.

Many non-scheduled, government-owned and private operators lack basic safety infrastructure, according to air safety experts and experienced pilots, as reported by Mint on 11 February.

The probe into Reddy’s helicopter crash found that Andhra Pradesh Aviation Corp. Ltd (APACL), which ran the air operations of the state government, did not follow many safety protocols.

The 140-page probe report blamed the “casual attitude of maintenance personnel" for the crash, and added that APACL’s senior management lacked “knowledge of aviation-related issues".

Investigators found no snag register on the helicopter listing defects, if any, that had been found in the past. The regulator wants all state government-owned aviation setups be audited to ensure they meet safety guidelines. DGCA had not audited APACL’s operations for five years.

“This (the new guidelines) will increase the accountability of the state governments," said a DGCA official on condition of anonymity, adding that aviation facilities of state governments are typically manned by administrative officials with little technical knowledge.

Minimum flying experience norms will also be enforced. For example, the flight commander of a normal fixed-wing aircraft, when operating VIP flights, must have flown 3,000 hours, including at least 2,000 hours as a commander. The flight commander must also have flown in that particular kind of aircraft for 50 hours, and have 50 hours of night flying experience.

“No operations shall be conducted when the weather conditions are not conducive to safe operations of the flight," say the guidelines, available on DGCA’s website.

Once implemented, DGCA wants all operators to comply with the regulations within four months or face the cancellation of permits.

Mohan Ranganathan, a Chennai-based air safety expert with at least 20,000 hours of flying experience, welcomed the new rules, but warned that implementing them would be tough as this may require inconveniencing senior politicians and high-ranking officials. He also said most VIPs used privately held or charter planes, to whom the new rules won’t apply. “What is the point in having the restrictions when the VIPs tend to use private aircraft indiscriminately?"