If India’s aviation regulator were to decide one day to go strictly by its own book, flights to many of the country’s airports would be grounded.

As many as 70% of India’s public airports are not licensed, meaning claims arising from any accident on them wouldn’t be binding on insurance companies.

Fortunately for Air India, the Mangalore airport was one of those with a valid licence when a flight operated by its low-cost international affiliate, Air India Express, crashed on 22 May, killing at least 158 passengers and crew.

Risk factor: (top) Planes line up for take-off at Delhi airport; an air traffic controller at the Mumbai airport. Of some 80 operational public airports in India, only 23 have undergone a licensing check since 2006. Photographs: Vijayanand Gupta/Hindustan Times

The airport was on 16 December given a licence valid for six months by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), according to data provided by the Airports Authority of India (AAI).

“Because it is against the rule if they (aircraft) land, insurance will not be available if the field is not licensed," said V. Krishnan, a former general secretary of the Air Traffic Control Guild and retired deputy director of aerodromes at AAI, which manages state-owned airports.

Licensing of airports, which would follow a thorough inspection of the facilities, is crucial to detect deficiencies that need to be corrected to avoid safety lapses and potential accidents.

Indian airports are riddled with flaws ranging from runway markings that don’t conform to International Civil Aviation Organization (Icao) standards, and incorrect and infrequent runway friction testing methods to a severe shortage of air traffic controllers (ATCs) to monitor flight movements, said air safety expert Mohan Ranganathan.

As of October, India had 1,640 ATCs against a sanctioned strength of 2,162, according to a report by the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation’s India office. The shortage means additional workload and stress on the existing ATCs.

“We know the conditions at Indian airports," said a senior official with a domestic insurance company that deals with aviation insurance, who declined to be identified. “Internationally, there is a ruling, there is a norm that there can’t be insurance in case of an unlicensed aerodrome. For insurance here, the reinsurers puts in a condition—if there is an aerodrome (which is) not licensed, they put a limit to the liability."

Of some 80 operational public airports in India, only 23 have gone through a licensing check by the regulator since 2006, when the licensing policy was first framed. In addition, the regulator has licensed 18 non-public airports run by corporate houses such as Jindal Steel and Power Ltd in Raigarh (Chhattisgarh), Adani Group in Mundra (Gujarat) and Sahara group in Aamby Valley (Maharashtra).

Not enough hands

One reason why so many airports don’t have a licence is the understaffed regulator of the aviation market that has tripled from 13 million passengers in 2002 to 44 million in 2009. International traffic has more than doubled from 12 million to 30 million in the same period.

Also Read Previous stories in the series

Yet, DGCA, which maintains all civil aviation oversight, has seen its workforce dwindle from 735 employees in 2000 to around 300 by 2009 as officials retired or took up better paying jobs offered by new airlines and private airports.

Since AAI ran most of the airports until 2006, after which the main airports such as Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Hyderabad were privatized, the need for a formal licensing process had never been felt in the past, said Kanu Gohain, a former director general of civil aviation.

A minimum three months is required for licensing an airport, according to DGCA. In the 39 months ended 2009, the regulator was able to license 41 public and private airports with just four officials available to attend to the task, Gohain said.

DGCA’s aerodrome licensing division currently has just seven officials.

“It is an unfortunate situation," said Krishnan. “Unfortunately, DGCA does not have enough people to do the inspection. How do you expect two-three people to go all over India and give certificates; they have to leave it to the (airport) operators and hope they maintain standards, and that is how it is going on."

A licence is typically valid for two years and is renewed after a review. It is unclear why the Mangalore airport was granted only a six-month licence. Experts such as Ranganathan say it could have been because the airport’s runway did not conform to all the required Icao standards.

For one, a runway the size of Mangalore’s needs to have a safety area of at least 240m against the available 90m. The safety area is the sandy stretch at the end of a runway into which an aircraft sinks its wheels in case it overshoots the concrete runway, as happened on 22 May with the Boeing jet, which rolled down one end of the hilltop airport and exploded into flames.

“Normally, when a deficiency is found, it is asked to be corrected in a given time frame and a temporary licence issued," said a DGCA official, who did not want to be named.

Airline trouble

The localizers, or the guidance portion of the instrument landing system installed at the end of the runway, need to be frangible (capable of being broken) so that if an aircraft overshoots the runway, there is little damage to its wings if it strikes the equipment, as happened with flight IX-812, said Ranganathan. An AAI spokesman said new localizers were being installed in line with Icao guidelines.

Shakti Lumba, a former vice-president (flight operations) at IndiGo, the low-fare carrier run by InterGlobe General Aviation Pvt. Ltd, said that if pilot negligence is proven to be responsible for the 22 May crash, Air India Express could find itself in trouble although Mangalore’s airport had a valid licence. He cites the case of an Indian Airlines flight from Mumbai to Ahmedabad that crashed on its final approach in October 1988, killing 130 passengers and crew, after striking trees and a power pylon. Indian Airlines has since merged with Air India.

A commission that inquired into the crash blamed pilot error. It was also proved in court that navigational aids at the Ahmedabad airport were malfunctioning. In 2003, 15 years after the crash, a judge ordered Indian Airlines and AAI to compensate families of the victims with higher amounts than the 2 lakh offered by the carrier.

“Punitive damages were awarded against the AAI for wilful misconduct and against Indian Airlines for acts of omission," said Lumba. “This was upheld by the Supreme Court. The probable cause of the accident, however, was human error due to error of judgement on the part of the pilot."

“Perhaps negligence on the part of the airline, if established, will result in unlimited liability under the Carriage by Air Act. This achieves greater significance now that Bhopal, synonymous with liability, has become a headache and an unrelenting media nightmare," Lumba said, referring to the gas leak incident in Bhopal in 1984.

Air India had an insurance cover of $8.9 billion (around 41,210 crore) for 153 planes for which it agreed to pay an annual premium of $24.23 million, with a consortium led by Anil Ambani’s Reliance General Insurance Co. Ltd.

In the case of the Mangalore crash, the liability is about 450 crore for the insurance companies, the insurance official quoted above said.

“If negligence is established on the part of the airline or the airport, then they (insurers) can escape from the responsibility," the official said.

Managing growth

One week before the crash, civil aviation minister Praful Patel inaugurated a new airport terminal in Mangalore, promising that an order to start work on extending the runway length to 9,000ft would be issued soon.

He said in July that it would be wrong to say that the country’s airport infrastructure was faulty.

“If there is scope for improvement or anything necessary, it will be reviewed and taken up at the earliest," Patel told reporters on the sidelines of the inauguration of Delhi’s brand new, $3 billion airport terminal in July. All airports will be audited and any flaws corrected, he said.

“I don’t think the airport infrastructure is lagging behind. It’s a question of managing the overall growth safely and responsibly. That is where I think our energies and focus should be over a period of time," the minister said.

DGCA is in dire need of additional hands to do its job. It has received approval to quadruple staff to 1,240 and hired some 40 aviation inspectors on secondment from airlines. The regulator hopes to fill 178 more positions by September, according to a presentation it made to a government committee after the crash.

The DGCA official quoted above said red tape and government apathy over the past few years had at least partly been responsible for the regulator’s inability to hire people to replace those who left.

Two government-appointed committees had recommended as long back as 2000 that DGCA’s workforce be strengthened. An Icao audit in 2006 found critical gaps between the availability and requirement of personnel to man aviation safety.

Last year, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) threatened to downgrade India’s status on aviation safety, which was when DGCA sought officials on secondment from airlines. “This came as a blessing in disguise," the same DGCA official said about the US threat.

FAA’s senior representative for South Asia, Aaron E. Wilkins III, said the US is satisfied India is trying to improve. “They are trying do the best they can to keep up to the safety standards," he said on the sidelines of a June safety conference in the Capital organized by the Aeronautical Society of India.

This is the second of a three-part series on aviation safety.

Next: Of pilots and the fear of flying.