New Delhi: The United Nations’ aviation watchdog has decided to conduct another safety audit of India’s aviation safety this year in a move that could potentially affect the international expansion plans of new and old Indian airlines.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), of which India is a member, completed an audit of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) in 2012 and placed the country in its list of 13 worst-performing nations.

This time its audit will perhaps, as a result of the findings of the earlier one, be even more elaborate, said two government officials aware of the matter who asked not to be identified.

After India addressed some of the issues highlighted by the 2012 audit, it was removed from the list of poor performers.

“ICAO operates its safety oversight auditing programme under a Continuous Monitoring Approach. India’s upcoming 2015 audit is simply our next scheduled visit," Anthony Philbin, spokesperson for ICAO, said in an email. Philbin was replying to a question on why ICAO was headed to India earlier than expected—it had conducted an audit in 2006 and then again in 2012.

He did not say if the audit had anything to do with crashes in South East Asia.

While the dates are being worked out, officials in the government are worried.

This year’s audit will, apart from safety, also look at aviation security, the two government officials added.

“You can imagine how difficult that security test is to pass Just look at the number of director generals we have removed. We are looking terrible outside," one of the two added.

India has frequently changed the heads of DGCA.

In December, the director general of civil aviation Prabhat Kumar was removed despite the fact that US regulator Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was in the process of reviewing its downgrade of India’s safety rankings.

The FAA launched its own audit after the findings of ICAO were released and effected its own downgrade.

Before Kumar, the government did not extend Arun Mishra’s term as director general. In 2013, Mishra moved to Bangkok to take over as ICAO’s Asia-Pacific head.

Worse, India’s aviation security body Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS) has had no permanent head for more than two years. No one wants the job as, in terms of hierarchy, it isn’t seen at the same level as other postings for senior officers of the Indian Police Service, said a third person familiar with the developments who asked not to be named.

A panel was also formed last year to select a BCAS chief but the Union Public Service Commission scrapped that panel citing irregularities.

Meanwhile, the workforce of BCAS has shrunk to around 70. Many of its offices across India are not manned.

ICAO had recommended a workforce of 150 several years ago, the third person added, “but nothing has been done".

The ICAO audit comes at a time when FAA’s is yet to be closed. The agency was to come to India in February to see whether its concerns had been addressed but will now only do so later. A FAA spokesperson said the agency had no comment to offer on India.

Air India Ltd and Jet Airways (India) Ltd cannot start flights to new destinations in the US unless FAA upgrades India’s aviation rankings.

Former director general M.R. Sivaraman said the government needs to find a “technical officer" to head DGCA instead of finding bureaucrats for the post and also make aviation safety a priority.

India’s airlines Air India, Jet Airways, IndiGo, SpiceJet Ltd and GoAir have largely remained safe for flying and most are cleared by the internationally mandated International Air Transport Association’s safety audit.

There has been one major crash in the past five years—158 people died in India’s worst air crash in a decade in Mangalore in 2010 when an Air India Express flight IX-812 overshot a hilltop runway.

Sivaraman said DGCA should also take a position against FAA and ICAO if it thinks it is in the right.

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