New Delhi: The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) allowed India’s largest conglomerate Reliance Industries Ltd to fly planes without airworthiness checks that also assess whether the crew can handle emergencies, according to documents reviewed by Mint.

Tushar Pania, a Mumbai-based Reliance spokesman, did not respond to an email sent on Monday, and subsequent calls and messages seeking comment.

To be sure, the lapse by the aviation regulator seems to be more of a procedural one rather than a real safety issue. After all, it is in the interests of India’s biggest industrial house, which has around eight private planes, including big jets such as the Airbus A319, Falcon 900 and Bombardier Global Express, to ensure the safety of its senior executives who use the planes, and their families.

Many corporate jets are also loaned to other companies, even politicians—usually for a charge—although Mint couldn’t immediately ascertain whether Reliance too did so.

Interestingly, it was US aviation regulator Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that discovered this lapse during its audit of the Indian regulator in September.

The FAA has since downgraded India’s safety ranking to the second category, placing it with countries such as Indonesia, Ghana, Curacao, Serbia, Bangladesh and the Philippines. Indian airline firms Air India Ltd and Jet Airways (India) Ltd will not be able to launch flights to the US now, nor have alliances with US carriers.

Reliance Commercial Dealers Ltd, part of Reliance Industries, has around eight private aircraft.

“The certification file for Reliance Commercial Dealers Ltd did not contain a record of proving flights being conducted to demonstrate readiness of the operator to conduct operations as specified in (the) airworthiness procedures manual," FAA found in its audit and informed DGCA, according to a DGCA note dated 3 February that has been reviewed by Mint. Mint couldn’t ascertain whether other so-called “non-airline" operators were named in the audit report.

DGCA admitted the lapse in the same note, without saying what caused it.

An aviation ministry spokesman said DGCA follows the guidelines laid down by United Nations (UN) body called International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) that says that such airworthiness tests “may" be required; under FAA rules, the word used is “shall".

FAA’s position, as articulated in the same note, is that even ICAO requires that these tests be carried out.

When FAA returned in December to check on the 33 deficiencies it has found in its September audit, it was informed that the matter related to Reliance’s planes was still being considered.

Before granting an operator’s permit to a non-airline operator, DGCA’s flight operations inspectors have to conduct a so-called table top exercise on the flight and various possible scenarios, including in-flight emergencies and diversions to alternative fields.

FAA told DGCA that the fact that this was not done for Reliance Commercial Dealer is “not in compliance with ICAO standards".

DGCA said it has since finished the table top exercise for Reliance.

FAA’s September audit of DGCA came after a 2012 audit by ICAO that raised “significant safety concern with respect of the ability of this state (India) to properly oversee its airlines (air operators) under is jurisdiction" specifically charters and business jets, Mint first reported on 10 March 2013. ICAO submitted its report in early 2013.

ICAO subsequently black-flagged India and only lifted it by August and said India had addressed its concerns.

“Corruption and political clout has ensured that no meaningful DGCA audit has been done on charter operators and business jets for several years. All political leaders use the private aircraft for free and it is all for favours," alleged Mohan Ranganathan, who sits on the civil aviation safety advisory council formed in the aftermath of the Mangalore air crash that killed 158 people in May 2010.

India has had a patchy air safety record in recent years, especially where business jets and charter aircraft are concerned.

Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Dorjee Khandu was killed with four others after when a Eurocopter B8 Pawan Hans helicopter crashed in bad weather in May 2011.

Andhra Pradesh chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy died when his state government-owned Bell 430 helicopter crashed in a dense forest while flying to a village in Chitoor district in September 2009.

Ten people, including seven on board a medical ambulance aircraft of Air Charter Services Pvt. Ltd, were killed when the flight to Delhi from Patna crashed into the roof of two houses near the national capital in 2011.

Ranganathan said the Reliance case is just the tip of the iceberg and highlights the lack of regulation and oversight on hundreds of uncontrolled aircraft in the Indian sky.

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