Have a pleasant fright

Have a pleasant fright

The next time you fly from an Indian airport with one of the many domestic airlines, take a deep breath. When you land at your destination, thank your guardian angel for your life. Given the serious air safety problems confronting airlines, it is a wonder that more accidents don’t happen.

As a Mint series on air safety issues (10-12 August) shows, there is a rot in our airline regulatory system. Badly trained pilots, unlicensed airports and understaffing of air traffic controllers now ensure that there are serious risks involved in air travel.

It is, of course, invidious to pin blame on one factor in a complex system that involves many different parts. But if there is one reason for the mess, it is this: The airline regulator, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), was simply unprepared to meet the massive expansion in the aviation sector in the last 10 years. Consider the facts. Nearly 2,500 new pilots have been hired in the past five years, or an average of 500 every year. DGCA simply did not have the resources or the will to carry out quality checks on these pilots. An unconscionably large number of these pilots have been trained at dubious academies and simply have no business being in an aircraft cockpit. Yet they hold the fate of millions of passengers whom they fly every year in their palms. The risks are simply unimaginable. DGCA is deeply complicit in this. Very often it has granted commercial pilot licences to such pilots in less than a week, making nonsense of pilot verification.

Then there is the issue of adequately equipped airports. Of India’s 80 operational public airports, only 23 have undergone a licensing check since 2006. In different words, at least 70% of these airports have no licence. What this means is that if there is an aviation accident in any of these airports, insurance companies can simply walk away without honouring claims arising from it.

The net result is that DGCA has left regulation, or any vestiges of it, in the hands of various players in the aviation system, among them airlines and airport operators. This is not regulation, but a wilful lack of it.

In the end, however, the blame lies with one man: Union civil aviation minister Praful Patel. It was incumbent on him, as the final authority in ensuring that all is well with civil aviation in India, to have ensured a well-managed system. Clearly, he’s not done his job.

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