New Delhi: Domestic airlines need to be prepared to face surprise inspections on international flights, India’s aviation regulator has said, even as it readies itself to conduct checks on aircraft flown by international airlines.

The advice by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) comes after India’s flight safety rankings was downgraded by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the US regulator. “In view of current decision of FAA, US, it is likely that various civil aviation authorities may subject Indian carriers to increased surveillance. It should be desirable that airlines operating to foreign destinations must comply with safety regulations, documentation and other requirements as per global standards," joint director general Lalit Gupta wrote in a note to all airlines chief executives on 31 January. Mint has reviewed a copy of the note.

The note was sent to Air India chief Rohit Nandan, Jet Airways (India) Ltd’s Ravishankar Gopalakrishnan, IndiGo’s Aditya Ghosh and SpiceJet Ltd’s Sanjiv Kapoor.

Air India has 21 weekly flights between India and the US, Jet Airways has seven, while other airlines fly mostly to South-East Asia and the Middle East.

The note adds a checklist of over two-dozen items mandated by the International Civil Aviation Organization, or Icao, that airlines must have with them when operating any foreign flights as checks could delay flights making passengers wait inside the aircraft for hours.

The US’s downgrade reduces India to a safety category that includes Ghana, Indonesia, Uruguay and Zimbabwe, and means that Air India and Jet Airways—the two Indian airlines that fly to US destinations—wouldn’t be allowed to expand flights and their existing flights would be subjected to additional checks.

As a consequence of the downgrade, United Airlines has snapped its code-share agreement with Jet Airways. Singapore has said it will conduct increased ramp checks of airlines flying to Changi airport from India, according to Bloomberg.

A downgrade does not reflect on the safety of India’s airlines. The rankings measure the ability of the Indian regulator to follow safety processes.

India’s airlines that fly brand new aircraft have already started facing embarrassing situations.

Jet Airways has told its flight crew that the airline will face mounted checks from 6 February by US government arm Transport Security Administration or TSA. “Jet Airways will undergo an extensive TSA audit in EWR (Newark airport). This audit will last for approximately two weeks," Rahul Bhave, chief pilot at Jet Airways, said in an internal note on 5 February, which was reviewed by Mint.

A Jet Airways spokesperson did not offer any comments.

Air India has already moved to nominate “a dedicated team at flight dispatch to monitor onboard documents as per regulatory requirements and ensure they are updated", according to a 1 February internal note reviewed by Mint.

An Air India spokesman confirmed issuing strict instructions.

All ground handlers and engineering departments have been informed to keep everything in the best state possible and crew have been told to ensure all their papers and permits are freshly stamped and laminated.

One concern that still remains is pilot licences, said a person familiar with the matter, who declined to be named. Some pilot licences, when they are being renewed, are issued a temporary slip by DGCA till they are finally given a new permit and, so far, foreign regulators have been easy on this grey area. The worry is whether that still may continue or not, said this person.

India, a government official said, is preparing a carrot-and-stick approach in the current circumstances. He, too, declined to be identified.

Director general of civil aviation Prabhat Kumar has formed teams trained to conduct surprise checks at major airports like Delhi and Mumbai on planes used by international airlines.

The cabinet on 29 January also approved appointing 75 officers at the aviation regulator who will be paid on par with international airlines to attract the best talent.

These flight operations inspector will get a salary ranging from 557,000- 677,500 per month, according to information available on DGCA’s website.

“Last time (when India faced a similar US downgrade in 2010), it was taken up by the Prime Minister and we went to Washington and said we will do all the things required. We didn’t keep to our promises," said retired aviation ministry official Sanat Kaul. “It’s like an emission test. If your car fails it, you have to go back and get your car back to acceptable emission levels. I don’t see any other motive in this downgrade."

India may need to take help of some specialized firm to revert to normal rankings, a foreign analyst said.

“To get back to Category I, it might be helpful for DGCA to hire a consulting firm familiar with FAA audits and Icao requirements," John Goglia, a former member of the US National Transportation Safety Board that investigates all aircraft accidents in the US, said in an email. “Other countries have found that helpful."

Category - I is the highest aviation safety ranking while Category-II is the next level awarded by FAA.

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