Wednesday, May 29, 2024

DGCA: Getting Its Act Together

By Bikram Vohra

In 1978 following the crash of the Emperor Ashoka on New Year’s Day in the waters off Bandra Mumbai, the voice recorder and flight data recorder were dispatched to the USA for analysis. That is how weak and feeble the Directorate General of Civil Aviation was that it depended on the same country that made the plane that crashed to interpret the evidence. Things have certainly improved since then, but exactly how much is a moot point. Good intentions are often stymied by limited support systems.

One of the complaints against the DGCA for years was its sharp conflict of interest. It was responsible for air safety and responsible for air accident and incident investigation. Ergo, it never found itself guilty. This was not so much its fault as that of the low priority given to aviation safety in the country.

The other accusation that carries merit was the bureaucratic hierarchy that ran the overseer body. Expertise in this very special area stayed in the red tape arena. Many of the recommendations from various specially set up committees like Bhasme, Chandurkar, Pande, and Ramamithran, to name a few, rusted in their own glory and were not implemented. The post-accident investigation went on for so long that the connection was lost, and the conclusion became academic. The facilities to make the DGCA that much more efficient were just not extended, and the capability to investigate and assess was often compromised.

Even today, despite a deep vat of aviation know-how available in the country, the DGCA continues to be a bureaucratic posting. Therefore, a transfer from agriculture to aviation would be acceptable, and similar shifts do occur.

Much the same process is followed in air safety where we still have no independent body like the National Transportation Safety Board and continue the bureaucratic oversight and the proliferation of the aforementioned conflict of interest. The NTSB works free of government interference and is not accountable to that federal authority. Even in the continent, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency is an agency of the European Union with responsibility for civil aviation safety. It carries out certification, regulation and standardisation and performs investigation and monitoring.

Over the years, it has, therefore, been easy to indict the DGCA for sweeping much dirt under the rug and ignoring the wrinkles in air safety. Not always the fault of the functional hierarchy but of its less-than-necessary resources.

With the current excitement over the mega purchase plan of 300 aircraft for Air India and impressive investments by Akasa, Indigo and Vistara opening new routes, the reworking of the governing body to ensure global standards of safety becomes imperative. The desire to create a vibrant regional network must be tempered by a level playing field in terms of safety parameters. Therefore, it is necessary to revitalise the supervisory system and give it what it deserves for the greater good. Addressing these issues will only make for a more valid organisation.

At the very outset, the DGCA is woefully short of trained staff. This is reflected in its intent to increase its payroll by 1000 people in the coming years. The present strength of technically able staff is 675. The time lag in investigating snags or even having adequate manpower to examine aircraft incidents leaves it stretched and often unable to look with immediacy into other aspects of safety.

Perhaps Air Traffic Control is Indian aviation’s weak underbelly. Not because the staff is not worthy of a medal; it is just that the congestion factor is an accident waiting to happen unless ATC is made more attractive and given precedence in the scheme of things. Today it works under severe pressure, and burnout is common. Contrary to popular opinion that ATC just lands and takes off aircraft, it is so much more. Between grumpy and tired pilots demanding priority, failure of radar versus VHF, sudden onboard crises demanding a change of route and a dozen other pressures, the ATC operator is literally god for the flights in the air. Refusal by a pilot to respond on VHF despite frequent calls, which occurs often enough, is a nightmare. Again, since stress, pay, and salaries are outdated and largely unattractive, few people wish to enlist. This very central role needs to be revamped and made more attractive as a career.

Criticised for skimming the surface on many of the reported snags by airlines, the DGCA in 2022 decided to take some steps to put its house in order. This has been salutary and a long time coming. The steps taken are welcome. It elected to upgrade attention on surveillance and oversight issues as well as literally ramp up ramp inspections. It has supposedly conducted 533 such inspections in the past year. In the year preceding June 2022, there were 478 incidents reported by scheduled carriers. The maximum number of snags was reported by Air India (184), followed by IndiGo at 98; SpiceJet reported 77 incidents, Go FIRST (50), Vistara (40), and AirAsia India had 14 such incidents.

The role of the DGCA has become more vital after two years of Covid as carriers increase their frequency and the number of flights. We can logically expect a higher number of snags sheets and longer Minimum Equipment Lists as bottom-line pressure from carrier management often undoes any good work and effort to improve things by government agencies. All too often, safety rules are flouted at our second and third-tier levels. In fact, Captain Mohan Ranganathan, an aviation safety expert, warned against ops in Kochi and Mangaluru because there is a high risk of things going wrong. Since the Airports Authority of India is also a government agency, it can possibly keep the file in abeyance, so to speak. There is always that temptation to soften accidents into incidents and tiptoe past the hassle.

In essence, the problem is that the DGCA should have been a regulator and a facilitator offering support, advice and a bridge to state and Central authorities. Instead, it has been a big boss, the decision maker in all things aviation and, like all bosses, does not take kindly to resistance or criticism of its activities.

Thankfully, this is changing. In all fairness, there seems to be a bit of awakening now in the corridors of Indian aviation.

In 2023, the DGCA will have 3,827 action points as opposed to 3,709 in 2022.

It intends to place more scrutiny on aircraft worthiness, C checks, airport and runway efficiency, Air Traffic Control, maintenance, repair and overhaul and training protocols.

It all sounds encouraging, but whether there is that in-house capability to handle so much more load is still to be seen.

There is also another issue that is largely ignored and, when mentioned, becomes more of a sensational mockery. It is air rage. As the fun goes out of air travel and a two-hour flight is bookended by more time wasted back and front, air rage and rank, bad behaviour will increase exponentially and impact air safety. Our official reactions to unacceptable conduct are still very much knee-jerk. In recent times, these incidents have increased. Add to a rather questionable passenger profile, which is demanding, and roughhewn the cabin crews under pressure and ground staff that are so under the cosh that the powder is dry for confrontations that are far more hostile. The DGCA has no parameters on this issue. Airlines fall back on no-fly lists, which is laughable as a penalty.

Yet, mark my words; passenger peril is around the corner. Take a flight these days, and you can sense the palpable tension and stress. International flights are no better experience. With crowded airports, limited slots, more aircraft in the sky, gaps in the technical infrastructure and a shortage of properly trained staff at all levels, the war zone that airports and aircraft have become is going to get worse.

What is necessary is for the Ministry of Aviation to upgrade the airport policing, empower cabin crew to ensure flight safety (it exists, but who needs the paperwork and hassle of the inquiry), create a white paper on passenger-crew-staff etiquette and take this aspect seriously because with air travel becoming even more strenuous and joyless the short fuse will ignite far more often. We have seen and heard of so many recent incidents ranging from rudeness to physical abuse to fighting to insult, and yet there is a reluctance to accept that it compromises safety per se.

If the DGCA can fine airlines for lapses by their staff or flight deck and cabin crew, perhaps one deterrent to passenger misbehaviour would be a financial charge. That could work better because threats and onboard clashes, and face-offs only exacerbate the situation. Time to take note and conduct an awareness campaign. Banning alcohol is not the answer. Flight deck crew of any airline will confirm that while there are incidents of drunkenness, most of the belligerence comes from totally sober, angry passengers who cannot take it anymore. The passenger per se has to be seen as an intrinsic part of the air safety equation.

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