India’s aviation sector is among the fastest-growing in the world. Set to grow exponentially in the years ahead, the sector is focussing equally on safety.
After several months of uneasiness the officials in India’s Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) and its regulators heaved a sigh of relief on November 17. They had a reason to be jubilant. Their restlessness appears to have subsided after the visiting inspecting team from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the global watchdog on aviation safety, carried out an audit of India in the areas of personal licensing, airworthiness, operations, legislation and organisation, for ten days from November 6 to November 16.
This is attested in a statement issued by MoCA: “As per preliminary feedback, the audit team was satisfied with the safety system put in place by the safety regulator.” The five-member team visited Chennai, Mumbai and Civil Aviation Training College, Allahabad to ascertain the implementation of safety-related procedures as per regulations laid down by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) in line with ICAO annexes/documents. Launched in 1996 as voluntary Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme of ICAO in 1999, it became the motor for promoting global aviation safety. All the 192 countries are regularly audited for safety.
As per the procedure laid down by ICAO, the audit team presents its report to the headquarter team and the draft report is made available to the state in about 90 days. The state is required to provide its comments and draw its action plan on various aspects of the report and make it available to ICAO within 45 days. The report is then finalised by the United Nation (UN) watchdog and made available to member states.
*Till March 2017, Source: Directorate of Air Safety, DGCA
Past Performance: Worst, but Room for Improvement
India’s civil aviation sector’s concern is not misplaced. The ICAO placed India in its list of 13 worst-performing nations in terms of air safety, after it audited the DGCA in 2012. That triggered an audit by the United States of America (US) aviation regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), in 2014. The FAA eventually downgraded India’s ranking, citing a lack of safety oversight. The ratings were restored in 2015. But as long as the downgrade lasted, Indian airlines were not allowed to add new routes to the US or sign agreements with American airlines.
Impacting Indian Skies
The outcome of the 2017 ICAO audit could have an impact on India’s expanding civil aviation sector. For instance, India’s newest private sector full-service carrier, Vistara, is planning to expand its fleet to 20 aircraft by early 2018, essentially to be eligible to fly international routes, as per the norms of the Indian government.
The aviation sector is in a buoyant mood after the Government’s decision to remove the five-year qualification requirement for domestic airlines to be permitted to operate international services.
Aviation consulting firm, Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (CAPA) pointed out in its 2017 outlook that Indian airlines are scheduled to induct 60-65 narrow-body aircraft and 10-12 smaller aircraft for regional routes in 2017-18. The country’s national carrier, Air India, has opened several direct routes between India and the US, with services to San Francisco and Washington, DC, in addition to its existing services to New York, Newark and Chicago. Its international rival, Jet Airways, is also planning to begin non-stop flights to the United States shortly and hence the outcome of the audit will shape the contours of the global expansion plans of airlines in India, in 2018.
Indian Aviation in Take-Off Mode
Thanks to growing economy and increasing tourism leading to a booming demand, aided by favourable government policies, sector consolidation, stabilising yield, depreciating rupee and fuel-efficient fleets offsetting the rise in fuel prices, the aviation sector in India is at a turning point.
Minister of State for Civil Aviation Jayant Sinha is bullish about the prospects of India’s aviation market and believes it would surpass the US and China by crossing a billion passenger trips per year in the next 10 to 15 years.
“The growth in the aviation sector is unprecedented. In the last three-four years, we have actually been growing at 15-20 percent. From 100 million passenger trips a few years ago, we will double to about 200 million passenger trips this fiscal. In fact, India is already the third largest domestic aviation market in the world, only after the US and China,” says Sinha. According to him, US stood at around 900 million passenger trips per year, while China stood at 600 million. India, he says, will grow to a onebillion-passenger-trips market in the next decade and a half. “So, from 500 planes in the sky, we will have to go to about 2,000 planes,” he predicts.
So, can India take the pressure of huge expansion of the civil aviation sector, even as it is set to become the third largest buyer of planes in the world? “Unprecedented expansion will place immense pressure on the aviation system,” warns CAPA. “The industry currently appears to be underestimating the challenges ahead. Aircraft induction on this scale will require massive infrastructure development, skilled resources and aircraft financing at a pace that has not been seen before in India.”
Can the Indian aviation infrastructure improvements keep pace with the faster demand growth? Of the over 1.3 billion Indians, only a very small percentage have ever taken a plane. As the demand for air travel increases, India will face growing pains related to the country’s poor airport and air traffic infrastructure. Take these two issues and add to them the rapidly expanding air carriers, and India potentially has the ingredients for a very high operating risk.
Stakeholders and sector experts are seized by challenges posed by the growth. CAPA, for instance, believes that, “Rapid growth is straining the system, increasing safety and security risks, which may become visible in 2017-18 as traffic reaches higher levels.”
In his assessment of air safety in India, Chennai-based Captain Mohan Ranganathan, an ace aviation consultant and veteran pilot of more than decades, asserts that safety standards are abysmally low. “India has to move from the ‘cover-up mode’ to ‘proactive safety mode’. You need to ensure that the surveillance-safety audits are not a boxticking exercise but a realistic finding and ensure a proper follow-up on actions taken,” he tells AIBM. (See Interview: Pg 62)
Echoing similar concerns, another retired pilot, Group Captain A K Sachdev observes: “Unless there is a fundamental change of approach, Indian civil aviation is set to plateau much before it reaches the currently projected podium position.”
Spike in Near Misses, Air Safety Violations
Experts have been sounding these alarms at regular intervals and not without reason. For instance, as the ICAO was conducting its safety audit, a SpiceJet regional jet arriving from Jabalpur suffered a tail strike during landing at the Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGIA) on November 9, 2017, in the capital.
On August 22, 2016, Indigo flight IGO258 and Air India’s AIC995 approached the same altitude over New Delhi. Flight AIC995 was asked by an air traffic controller to turn left to avoid a collision, but that put the plane on the path of another Indigo aircraft, IGO528. It was, indeed, a close shave.
This is not limited to just an aberration or two. These were, in fact, one of the 32 cases of ‘near misses’ in 2016. It is the highest for any one year in the history of the country’s civil aviation. What supplements the operating risk is the whopping spike in air safety violations. India recorded 422 air safety violations in 2016 against 275 in 2015.
Worse still, the national carrier, Air India, along with its subsidiaries Air India Express and Alliance Air, registered 185 cases of violations, where punitive measures were taken against the crew in 2014, 2015 and 2016. While the market leader, IndiGo, recorded three cases, 154 cases were noted against Jet Airways where penalties were imposed on their crew, with SpiceJet following with 142 similar violations during that period.
In defence of the aviation players, Sinha asserted in July this year in the Rajya Sabha, “There is a reducing trend in cases of safety violations in the last three years.”
In the case of Air India, safety violations dropped by 80 percent – from 103 cases in 2014 to 22 in 2016, while Jet Airways saw a drop of such cases from 54 in 2014 to 34 in 2016. The exception was SpiceJet, where instances of safety breach rose from 48 in 2014 to 69 in 2016. Violations were also met with punitive measures by regulators. Sinha pointed out how the DGCA has issued warnings to personnel, de-rostered crew and enforced corrective training and suspension of licences.
Experts point to the road ahead, while commenting on the violations. “The number of air safety violations (422) is definitely alarming, but is also an indicator of the increase in aviation activity without a significant increase in infrastructure. Most of our large airports are operating at capacity or are reaching peak capacity. The number of aircraft is steadily increasing and the number of flying passengers has increased exponentially.
India is initiating measures to reduce this infrastructure congestion (secondary airports, increasing terminals and runway capacity, among others) and is also trying to spread aviation to distant corners of the country,” aviation expert Amber Dubey points out.
Challenges & Reforms
Over the nine decades of its existence, the DGCA, regulator of civil aviation in India, has faced many challenges. Many efforts to replace the DGCA with a Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) have been attempted, but this reform has been put on the backburner by the present government. Instead, efforts are on to give DGCA more financial, punitive and administrative powers, so that it can improve its functioning.
Skill Shortages: Flying Operations Inspectors (FOIs) are crucial for the safety of the aviation industry. They are leading-edge inspectors actually checking out flying operations. The required number is pegged at 75. On account of lower emoluments, the regulator has found it difficult for pilots to work as FOIs.
Need for Independent Accident Board: Established in 2012, the Aircraft Accident Investigation Board (AAIB), following the ICAO, raised concerns about how air accidents were investigated in India.
Need for Technocrats: Ranganathan asserts that India needs an independent civil aviation authority, and that it should have had one two decades back.
Some industry observers wonder whether regulations will be better off with selfregulation, which is in the interest of stakeholders. According to Amber Dubey, a large nation as complex as India needs to come up with a structure that suits its unique requirements as opposed to force-fitting a foreign solution.
He says, as the complexity of aviation in India increases exponentially, the ideal situation would be a state of self-regulation and for DGCA to transfer the responsibility to operators and make them accountable for all their decisions with adequate checks and balances.
Pilot Errors: An alarming factor about the safety in the Indian skies is the tendency of Indian pilots to consume alcohol before or during flights, in violation of the norms. According to the DGCA, in 2016, 230 pilots had failed the mandatory alcohol test, while in the first six months of 2017, the number stood at 89.
Encouragingly, the DGCA is cracking down harder. Pilots’ licenses are suspended only after repeat offences. But the regulator recently ordered Jet Airways and Air India to file police complaints against pilots who were found drunk, seeking legal action for the first time ever in such cases. The regulator also replaced an outdated alcohol-testing device, which was easy to cheat and hence relatively ineffective.
Banking on Technology: To overcome the challenges of limited infrastructure and trained manpower for safety, India is rapidly adopting technological solutions to boost the safety of its aviation sector.
Satellite-Based Navigation: During their flight time, aeroplanes need to be in touch with ground stations for accurate navigation and other assistance continuously. However, ground stations have their own limitations on account of limited range, due to which the contact with the aeroplane cuts off before the aeroplane can connect to the next ground station. In view of such and other limitations of the ground-based navigation systems, the ICAO in 1993 endorsed a global satellitebased navigation system as the future of air navigation system. Such systems are at present operational in the US, Europe and other developed countries.
Launched in 2015, India incorporated the satellite-based navigation system through a project named GPS-Aided GEO Augmented Navigation (GAGAN). The AAI, which primarily controls air traffic in India, signed an MoU in 2001 with Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to develop and implement the GAGAN project to provide seamless navigation over the Indian air space.
Remote Controlling Air Traffic: Realising the new opportunities from the Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS), AAI has now embarked on ensuring air safety through the remote air traffic control tower, by December 2018. Dr Guruprasad Mohapatra, Chairman, AAI, announced recently that India is likely to get its first remote air traffic control tower by the end of next year, at the Ahmedabad airport, allowing one tower to manage aircraft movements for several nearby airstrips.
Ahmedabad will be a model for Remote and Virtual Tower (RVT) in India. The RVT will have only one tower and excellent electronic data communication facility between participating airports and the main tower.
Personnel in an Air Traffic Control (ATC) tower in Ahmedabad, for instance, can very accurately see bays in Surat, Bhavnagar and Ankleshwar, he explained.
“Under RCS, we will have a plethora of airports with just one or two flights per day. So, rather than setting up ATC towers and deploying ATC personnel (at each of these airports), we hope to cover them with the remote tower concept,” Mohapatra added.
Remote and virtual towers replace traditional concrete control towers with dozens of high-resolution, infra-red cameras around runways that constantly feed live images to screens in buildings far from the airport.
Australia, Canada, Ireland and Sweden use RVT to enable flights at multiple airports to be monitored from one location, reducing the need for air traffic controllers and physical towers at every airport. This increases traffic capacity, and enhances safety and efficiency by improving the controllers’ situational awareness. This could act as a force multiplier for India’s regional airports, enabling multiple low-cost, no-frills airports to be controlled from regional hubs.
“Remote ATC is all the more needed for India, given our vast area, low traffic at regional airports and the need to keep airfares low,” points Dubey. The RVT could also accelerate the pace of second airports in metropolitan cities.
A SpiceJet flight overshot the runway on landing at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (CSIA) in Mumbai due to heavy rains
Mobile ATC: Another pilot project for a mobile ATC tower is likely to be launched by February 2018. This will include an ATC unit mounted on a truck, which can move between different airports as per requirement. With these technological innovations and necessary reforms to strengthen the regulators, India will not just fly high, but also fly safe.
Airport Safety: Looking Beyond the Aircraft
Besides safety issues with aircraft, the safety at the airports and the surrounding infrastructure is also equally important for passengers and crew alike. The rapid growth in number of flights has dramatically reduced the time between flights and many Indian airports, especially New Delhi and Mumbai, are operating at their peak capacities, with both handling over 70 departures every hour, thus increasing the chances of human or machine errors in manoeuvres on the tarmac, while the aircraft is prepared and moved for take-off or brought to their parking bays after landing. A growing number of incidents where aircraft have hit each other while being pushed back or where aircraft have been hit by other ground vehicles have been reported from various Indian airports in the last few years. All these point to an urgent need for a comprehensive safety-related training not only for the flight crews, but the entire personnel on the tarmac, be it the ground handlers, aircraft engineers, cleaners or other personnel.
Another factor influencing airport and aircraft safety concerns elements outside the airport, namely the buildings around the airport, especially in the approach path of aircraft as they prepare to land or in their way following a take-off. Though the rules governing the construction permits for buildings around the airport have been in place for long, their implementation has been slack, especially around the Mumbai airport, which has seen several high rises come up in the approach path of the aircraft.
A former aviation safety official working at Mumbai airport, who later turned a whistleblower, has flagged concerns about illegal high-rise buildings that are alleged to have rendered the Mumbai airport and the neighbouring Juhu aerodrome unsafe and unfit for emergency operations, especially for aircraft arriving with technical malfunctions. The official, in a stark report, calls for an urgent safety audit at Mumbai airport. The aviation authorities have since taken steps to demolish some of the structures, including those that existed for decades. However, the problem could recur anywhere else in the future as rapid urban development, often haphazard and unplanned and sometimes blatantly in violation of building permits and norms, takes place all over India.