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Mint Series | Foreign, but not entirely safe

Mint Series | Foreign, but not entirely safe

New Delhi: Michael James Fay-Doherty was one of the many expat pilots who came to India for a job at the height of the aviation boom in 2007, hoping perhaps that his criminal record and forged papers would go undetected by the understaffed aviation regulator in the country when passenger traffic had surged and pilots were in short supply.

Fay-Doherty wasn’t far off the mark. By the time his false credentials were discovered and he left the country, he had already flown in India for six months with India’s biggest low-cost airline, IndiGo, run by InterGlobe Aviation Pvt. Ltd.

In January this year, while investigating a flawed landing technique used by another IndiGo pilot, Parminder Kaur Gulati, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) found that she had produced a fictitious marksheet to obtain her commander’s licence.

The regulator then started scanning all the 4,500 pilot licences it had issued in the past five years. In an ensuing crackdown, the crime branch of the Delhi Police detained 22 people, including pilots, trainers and officials of DGCA. The last word hasn’t been heard yet on these cases.

Also Read | Previous two series

As the investigations proceed, some aviation experts are asking if checks are being sidestepped in hiring procedures, in the process compromising air safety, even as Indian airlines prepare for a new boom in passenger traffic.

Carriers, including Air India Ltd, Jet Airways (India) Ltd, SpiceJet Ltd, Kingfisher Airlines Ltd, GoAirlines (India) Ltd and IndiGo, have ordered 534 aircraft worth $40 billion (Rs 1.8 trillion today) at list prices, many of which will be delivered in the next five years.

Airlines will require 5,000 pilots, including 1,200 expatriate ones, to keep the fleet in the air, executives told DGCA last year.

India’s domestic and international passenger traffic is expected to grow threefold by 2020 to 450 million from 142 million in 2010, making it the world’s third biggest aviation market, according to consultancy Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation.

For the safety and security of Indian aviation, it is vital that the Fay-Doherty experience doesn’t recur, though foreign pilots remain critical to fuel the airline industry’s growth. Expatriate pilots aren’t given Indian licences; their foreign licences are supposed to be validated by their employers so they can fly in India.

The Fay-Doherty story

Fay-Doherty, with a licence (number 2129236) issued by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), landed his IndiGo job in May 2007 through the UK-based pilot recruitment agency AeroProfessional Ltd. He was quick to seek a promotion citing his purported experience, backed by FAA certificates.

A chance email exchange between the FAA and IndiGo executives showed that his documents had been fudged. He was fired in October 2007 after he failed to reply to a show-cause notice served on him by the airline, according to documents reviewed by Mint.

In a 12 October 2007 email, Fay-Doherty informed the airline that he would need time to respond to the show-cause notice and was resigning. He was “not traceable" after that, according to an internal IndiGo note.

The US FAA did trace him. “He is a wilful criminal who left the United States and currently holds no FAA certificates," FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette said in an email reply to questions on Fay-Doherty’s flying history.

FAA revoked Fay-Doherty’s certificates in February 2011 for intentionally making false statements on his application, the regulator said.

“Captain Michael James Fay-Doherty lied about his medical and criminal history. He was never issued an ‘ADP’ (aircrew program designee) authorization by FAA. The information he presented regarding an ADP authorization was fraudulent. He thereby falsified certificates and authorizations," Duquette said.

FAA declined to comment on his medical and criminal history. Fay-Doherty is presently in the custody of UK authorities, FAA said without elaborating on the charges, if any, he faces beyond forgery. He could not be reached for comment. The UK’s justice department did not offer any comment on the matter. An email sent to recruitment agency AeroProfessional remained unanswered.

IndiGo conceded that the pilot had managed to skirt its checks.

“Our team validates each document thoroughly before submitting the same to DGCA for its clearance. DGCA in turn validates the credentials and permits the pilot to operate in the Indian skies," IndiGo’s president Aditya Ghosh said in reply to emailed questions. “(As for) Michael James Fay-Doherty, all the requisite documents and licences were checked and validated before offering him a job... Whilst he was still employed with the company, the background check on antecedents continued. A mail from FAA on his credentials was received by the company. Once we got into the contents of the mail, he was issued a show-cause notice and the pilot was put off flying duties. Subsequent to which his contract was terminated on the grounds of veracity of particulars submitted."

Only, until he resigned, Fay-Doherty continued to fly. Mint couldn’t ascertain how many flights he did, but the typical IndiGo pilot flies 85-90 hours a month, which could translate into between 40 and 50 flights.

Hiring procedures

The Fay-Doherty case raises questions on how an individual skirted scrutiny in a country where 415 expat pilots are currently employed with airlines (out of a total of about 4,000) and where the aviation regulator has extended a 2010 deadline for phasing out foreign fliers to 2013, in response to a request by the airline industry.

“It exposes the nexus between the airlines and DGCA, the agencies that supply (personnel) without background checks and the criminal negligence in furnishing false information to the home ministry. Are our regulators willing to bite the bullet and kick all the fakes out?"  asked Mohan Ranganathan, a safety expert and member of the government-appointed Civil Aviation Safety Advisory Council.

DGCA grants the foreign aircrew temporary authorization in line with a standard process. All airlines work through different pilot recruitment agencies worldwide to source expat pilots and forward a list of eligible fliers to DGCA with five forms, licences and a passport after which DGCA sends the documentation to the home ministry for background checks on the person.

“They (home ministry officials) look if it’s (the name of a pilot) coming on a negative list. The clearance is then sent back to the airline," said a senior executive at a private airline who didn’t want to be identified. “On the basis of that he is granted (an) employment visa. He then sits for an oral and written DGCA exam, but for the first 90 days gets a temporary licence to fly."

The expat pilot cannot be out of the country for more than 90 days at a stretch during this period; otherwise the process needs to be repeated.

The problem is that there is no cross-verification of expat licences by DGCA with the regulator of the country where the licence is granted. The onus of doing this is on the airline, except that foreign government regulators typically do not reply to correspondence sent by airlines as a matter of protocol.

DGCA chief E.K. Bharat Bhushan has said that as part of the clean-up he is supervising at the regulator, it will issue a foreign pilot a licence only after cross-checking his credentials with its regulatory counterparts overseas and after subjecting him to a skills test in India.

IndiGo has created a new cell to help avoid experiences of the Fay-Doherty kind.

“To avoid any occurrence of such cases in future, we have put in place a foreign pilot recruitment process," said Ghosh. “Through this process it is ensured various loops are closed and the veracity of documents submitted are checked. A dedicated team works on carrying out the selection and recruitment of all foreign pilots and each member has been trained on checking the authenticity and the background of the pilot applicant."

That said, “tracking a pilot licence is very difficult. A US licence can be converted into a Cambodian licence to a UAE licence. What he presents to you is his last validation", the airline executive added.

For example, the Air India Express IX-812 flight that crashed in Mangalore on 22 May 2010, killing 158 passengers and crew, was commanded by Zlatko Glusica, a Serbian who had also flown in Malta, Australia and Canada.

An investigation found that Glusica slept for 1 hour and 40 minutes of the 2 hours, 15 minutes flight from Dubai, and ignored his co-pilot’s call to abort landing and make a second attempt. The report indicated that Glusica “was not fully fit and, hence, found it difficult to stay awake", though the autopsy did not show any trace of sedatives in his blood.

After the Mangalore crash report questioned the health of the Serbian commander, DGCA made it mandatory for expat pilots to undergo a medical check-up in India, a rule that until then only applied to Indian pilots.

Expats will continue to be critical to the airline industry’s growth, otherwise planes will need to be grounded, said the chief executive officer of another private airline, who also did not want to be identified.

“Otherwise," he said, “safety will become an issue. We just cannot ban them."

To be sure, precautions such as the one taken by IndiGo are vital as the industry prepares to embrace the next boom.

Only if you allow too many of them to operate here, safety could again become a problem, indicated a senior commander with a private airline who interviews candidates. The new crop of expatriate pilots in India is not up to the mark, added this person who did not want to be identified, and most are from Eastern Europe or South America and have “major issues with talking in English".

Some haven’t flown for five years, said this commander who has, in recent months, interviewed around 70 expatriate pilots.

“We are getting leftovers of the world," he added.

Sidin Vadukut in London contributed to this story.

This is the first of a four-part series on airline safety that looks at issues related to hiring and training that compromise safety. This will be Mint’s third series on air safety. In the first series, we explained how India’s aviation boom had been accompanied by a corresponding increase in the risk of mishaps. In the second, we looked at operational, infrastructural, and regulatory issues that compromised air safety.

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