Friday, May 24, 2024

Can Air Traffic Control Keep Pace With India’s Aviation Sector Growth?

By Aritra Banerjee

India’s aviation sector is poised for a dramatic upswing. According to recent estimates, the nation is slated to transport 450 million passengers via over 200 airports by 2030. Despite India currently housing around 700 aircraft within its commercial airlines, this fleet strength is expected to witness a formidable expansion in the coming years. IndiGo and Air India alone have placed orders for nearly 1,000 aircraft. This remarkable growth trajectory, however, introduces an unprecedented set of challenges, particularly when it comes to Air Traffic Control (ATC) and Air Traffic Control Officers (ATCO).

The Aviation Boom: Growth Projections

Today, India is acknowledged as the fastest-growing aviation market in the world. By the end of this decade, passenger count is expected to surge from 145 million to 450 million– in other words, a whopping 300% growth by 2030. These passengers are expected to utilise an expanded network of over 200 airports, compared to the current count of 148. 

Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia, in a briefing, succinctly encapsulated the impact of such impressive expansion. The Minister said, “at this time of an increase in aircraft and airports, we also need to ramp up the institutional framework.”

The exponential growth would necessitate an increase in not only the number of pilots, cabin crew, and ground staff but also more security personnel and ATCOs. 

The Air Traffic Controller Challenge

Increasing the number of ATCOs is a matter of grave concern. Although the number of such officers has nearly doubled from 2,305 in the financial year 2014 to 4,554 in recent years, a worrying deficit of ATCOs remains. Last year’s data suggests that of the sanctioned strength of 3,901, the actual number of ATCOs was only 3,162. This is a substantial 19% deficit in the number of people needed at ATC to help prevent catastrophes (including mid-air collisions) that could endanger hundreds of lives.

This shortfall in ATCO staffing is predicted to increase, with AAI projecting a requirement for 5,131 ATCOs in 2023 and 5,428 in 2024, marking a striking 60% and 70% increase, respectively, from the present staffing levels. 

There has long been a trend of unavailability of air traffic control professionals. Consequently, these officers are often overworked, stretched thin due to mandatory overtime, unable to utilise their quota of breaks at regular intervals, and driven to exhaustion because leaves are rather scarce. The strain on existing ATCOs has also resulted in the denial of childcare leave for female employees. 

One can intuitively tell how dangerous it is that people whose jobs include averting potential aircraft accidents cannot work at their best because of a headcount shortage. The shortage of ATCOs is casting a shadow over India’s booming aviation sector’s safety and efficiency. 

The question is about the lives of millions of passengers who travel by air every year. 

ATC is the backbone of commercial aviation safety; Photo/Unsplash

Move Towards Reform

In light of the predicted expansion, the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) has been aggressively bolstering its workforce since the financial year 2014-15 (FY15). The Airports Authority of India (AAI), the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS), and the Airports Economic Regulatory Authority (AERA) have all experienced a significant upsurge in manpower. 

Further, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), India’s aviation regulator, earlier this year, had updated its regulations concerning the work schedules of air traffic controllers. The fresh guidelines, which echo a November 2020 framework, continue to enforce a maximum duty period of 12 hours for an air traffic controller. A strict upper limit of 48 hours per seven-day period is also stipulated.

These regulations also mandate a 12-hour rest period between duty periods while capping consecutive working days at six. The DGCA requires a half-hour pause after every two hours of duty.

AAI: Critical For Better Working Conditions For ATCOs

Further, the DGCA has bolstered its guidelines with a definitive role for the Air Traffic Service in-charge to ensure adherence to the rules. This includes the need to publish a roster five days in advance, thus facilitating rest planning for controllers and prohibiting administrative duties beyond the prescribed duty period.

The AAI is additionally tasked with the creation and maintenance of a fatigue management policy and must ensure separate resting facilities for male and female staff. It is also required to verify that duty timings are observed.

Core Issues To Be Addressed

The AAI’s challenge to expedite recruitment processes remains a significant hurdle in successfully implementing these regulations. The challenge is exacerbated by the fact that it takes two years to train a recruit as a controller, creating a lag in supplying the manpower demand, which is set to rise with the addition of nearly 20 new operational airports by 2024.

The aviation sector’s expansion and challenges offer a study in contrasts. The pivotal question is whether India’s ground infrastructure and workforce can evolve rapidly enough to support this significant expansion. 

India’s increased focus on air safety has improved its global rankings. The country has reclaimed and retained the US Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Category-1 safety rating after being downgraded in 2014. Additionally, India rose from 102nd to 47th spot on the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s (ICAO) rankings. That development, alongside the growing number of ATCOs observed recently, has made room for optimism about countering the incumbent safety challenge ahead. 

While the promise of increased connectivity and economic prosperity fuels the rapid growth, the critical shortage of ATCOs, the need to modernise the ATC system, and safety considerations pose serious challenges. These hurdles must be navigated astutely to ensure the safe and successful realisation of India’s aviation ambitions.

As the Indian aviation sector soars to new heights, the world watches, waiting to see how the nation balances growth with safety, connectivity with efficiency, and ambition with pragmatism.

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