DGCA chief most likely asked to quit over tough stand on airlines5 min read . Updated: 12 Jul 2012, 01:34 PM IST
DGCA chief most likely asked to quit over tough stand on airlines
Mumbai: E.K. Bharat Bhushan’s dramatic ouster as the country’s aviation regulator—six days after he was re-confirmed in the post—appears to have been the direct result of his aggressive pursuit of airlines such as Kingfisher Airlines Ltd and the state-run Air India Ltd as he sought to ensure they followed safety and other regulations while coping with financial troubles.
People close to the development said Bhushan had also objected to the import of old planes by some airlines and business groups, which didn’t go down too well with the aviation ministry.
“Bhushan did his best though he was autocratic in his style of operations and had very few friends in his office and industry," said a consultant to airports and airlines. He requested anonymity citing the sensitivity of the issue.
The aviation ministry has been silent on the reasons for the unexpected removal of Bhushan as the head of Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). Media reports have speculated that aviation minister Ajit Singh chose to strip him of the post because of his hardline stance on airlines.
Bhushan told loss-making Air India and Kingfisher Airlines to pay employees’ salaries and allowances, overdue for several months, so that their performance would not be affected and safety would not become an issue.
“It is just a procedural problem," Singh, who took over in December, said, commenting on the change. He refused to elaborate on the reason for Bhushan being moved back to the aviation ministry.
Bhushan did not reply to calls or text messages seeking comment. Aviation secretary Syed Nasim Ahmad Zaidi declined comment as he was travelling abroad.
Kingfisher Airlines said it had not received any communication from DGCA. “Kingfisher is operating with the utmost safety under close supervision of DGCA," said spokesperson Prakash Mirpuri. He said the transfer of government officials was the sole prerogative of the government. “It is both highly incorrect and mischievous to even suggest that the transfer of DGCA was in any way connected to Kingfisher Airlines," he said.
Air India declined to comment on Bhushan’s departure as did Ravi.
Prashant Narain Sukul, joint secretary, aviation ministry, confirmed that he has been given additional charge of DGCA. Bhushan has returned to his earlier position as additional secretary and financial adviser, Bureau of Civil Aviation Security.
A 1979 batch Indian Administrative Services officer of the Kerala cadre, who also hails from the southern state, Bhushan took over from Zaidi in December 2010 as DGCA head. He was at the vanguard of the regulator’s effort to improve safety systems after an Air India Express crash in Mangalore in May that year left 158 people dead.
Bhushan, 57, sought to make pilot testing foolproof amid exposes of people with fake degrees flying planes and aviation schools fudging records, as highlighted by Mint in its two air safety series. (The flight safety series can be found at www.livemint.com/safeskies).
Among the changes he brought about was the computerization of the licensing exam for pilots and engineers.
Besides, tracking down bogus flying licenses, Bhushan started auditing flying clubs in the country and found discrepancies, including non-maintenance of documents, non-completion of flight training dossiers, improper briefing and debriefing, and non-maintenance of dissemination registers for working engineers, among other issues. He also introduced stricter procedures for the renewal of the licences of flying clubs.
In March, Singh said his ministry had suspended three DGCA officials alleged to have been involved in the preparation of lists of flying schools that had irregularities, based on a report submitted by the DGCA chief vigilance officer. The investigation brought state-run Airports Authority of India under the scanner.
To curb a spurt in air fares, Bhushan set up a Tariff Analysis Unit to monitor prices on a regular basis, inviting the displeasure of the country’s carriers.
In November last year, Bhushan began the financial surveillance of all airlines to make sure that they would not compromise on safety in the event of a cash crunch.
Bhushan came down heavily on all airlines—Air India, Kingfisher Airlines, Jet Airways (India) Ltd, IndiGo (run by InterGlobe Aviation Ltd), SpiceJet Ltd, Blue Dart Aviation Ltd and GoAir (run by Go Airlines (India) Ltd). The financial surveillance report cited several irregularities in safety parameters.
More recently, Bhushan called on all airline chief executive officers to lower their highest category fares by 5-20% because the increase in these fares over a 12-month period was much higher than the 16% increase in fuel prices over the same period.
Three months ago, a search committee set up to find Bhushan’s replacement as DGCA failed to select a suitable candidate, following which his tenure was extended till further orders.
On 4 July, the cabinet appointments committee had approved the extension of Bhushan’s additional DGCA charge for another year “with effect from 01.12.2011 or till the appointment of a regular incumbent, whichever is earlier." Bhushan moved to Delhi in the mid-1990s after serving in the Kerala government for several years, and worked in the ministry of commerce and industry.
Later, he worked as a joint secretary in the communications and information technology ministry, before joining civil aviation, where he rose to become additional secretary and financial adviser. He briefly became chairman and managing director of Air India in 2009, when Raghu Menon left in 2009.
Kapil Kaul, chief executive officer (South Asia) at consultancy firm Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (Capa), said any leadership change should be complemented by institutional strengthening as well. Kaul did not offer any comment on Bhushan’s removal.
“When the country was in the growth phase, DGCA was significantly weakened during 2004 to 2008. DCGA continued to operate with a weak institutional framework since 2008. And a mere name change from DGCA to CAA is meaningless. You need to have a collaborative effort to have a strong regulatory regime and DGCA should be part of it," said Kaul.
He was referring to the government’s proposal to overhaul DGCA, giving it greater authority, including the power to regulate air fares, besides conferring financial autonomy to an office that now functions as an extension of the civil aviation ministry. In its new avatar, DGCA will be renamed the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
“India’s aviation growth is at risk if there is no strong DGCA with better regulatory framework,“ Kaul added.
In its May report, Capa had said that DGCA continues to remain extremely resource constrained, with insufficient manpower and expertise, which raises the risk profile in a rapidly growing market. Capa said it believes that resultant safety concerns could lead the Federal Aviation Administration of the US to once again threaten to downgrade India to a Category 2 nation, as it did in 2009.
“On that occasion, the DGCA secured the necessary budget to invest in the required manpower, however there has been limited progress since then, despite the fact that the sector has grown significantly. Plans to establish a unified and independent regulator in the form of an Indian Civil Aviation Authority are moving slowly. A change in leadership at the regulator is also a possibility," Capa had said in its report.
PTI contributed to this story.