Appalling State of Affairs at DGCA: Central Information Commission

  • India’s DGCA Could Not Save its Own DATA
  • The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), the regulatory body entrusted with air safety operations in India, has lost all vital data related to pilots and aircraft safety.
  • This is being attributed to a ‘massive server crash’.
  • This so-called great plane data crash occurred following a massive software crash sometime in August 2015.

In August 2015, the Bombay High Court had directed the DGCA to submit a list of pilots who have obtained their commercial pilot license after submitting bogus certificates.

This was in a response to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by Dr Manisha Kanagali seeking to highlight the fraud played by commercial pilots on airlines for obtaining employment by submitting forged documents. Kanagali highlighted the case of her brother Captain Ajay Khadtale who obtained bogus Class XII certificate from a Bihar educational institute to obtain CPL from DGCA and employment from Air India. Khadtale had been flying since 18 years. Her petition had said that no action was being taken against him by DGCA and AI. Failure to take action sent a message to the public at large that were being piloted by fake pilots and their lives were at risk; adding that reluctance to take action against him had emboldened other pilots who also might have submitted forged documents. The PIL pointed out that there were hundreds of such cases of fake pilots. It was therefore necessary for a CBI probe.

In January 2017, the DGCA came up with a response : ‘a massive software crash sometime in August 2015.’

According to a senior DGCA official, ‘The data was on NIC (National Informatics Centre) server, which crashed about two years ago and thus the data got destroyed. NIC could not recover that data. We do possess some of the records in the physical form. However, under our program eDGCA, only the current renewals and issuance of new licenses are digitised now.’

This was in a response to an RTI filed by activist Anil Sood. The DGCA had to disclose that its entire data set pertaining to safety and security of planes and pilots has been lost. The servers crashed in August 2015 and all information regarding the list of commercial pilot licence holders registered with the DGCA and type rating test (TRT) certified pilots registered with the DGCA got destroyed.

Needless to mention, such a loss of flight data at such a massive scale may have serious implications not only on passenger safety but also on national security.

The DGCA conducts exams for pilots and engineers and awards CPLs and licenses. But when its own affairs are put under scrutiny, it cuts a sorry figure. The Central Information Commission too, in its observation to the RTI, came up with an apt remark – ‘this was an appalling state of affairs in respect of record keeping by the respondent public authority, especially when it concerns national security and safety of passengers.’ It advised the DGCA to be more diligent in maintain its sensitive data.

The information commissioner has stated: ‘In the interest of the safety and security, not only of the passengers but also in the larger national interest, the DGCA is advised to maintain data in respect of all the pilots in different categories licensed by the public authority in a digitised format.’

International airports across the world are treated as high-security zones in the wake of rising terror incidents.

India has about 11 critical airfields, where, according to DGCA rules, only TRT certified pilots are allowed for take-offs and landings. These airports are at Mangalore, Leh, Kullu Manali, Shimla, Agartala, Port Blair, Calicut, Aizawl (Mizoram), Patna, Jammu and Latur.

Since 2000, India has witnessed two major air crashes at Mangalore and Patna airports. Mangalore Airport is the most disastrous airport in India. It has a table top runway. The Mangalore crash of 22nd May 2010 is classified among the Top 10 deadliest air crash in last decade that led to the death of 158 passengers on board. In 2000, 60 people were killed when Alliance Air Flight 7412 crashed near Patna airport prior to landing.

These data are also more important as it has serious implications on national security as well. Experts say loss of data which involves the safety and security of passengers is a cause of grave concerns in the wake of several cases of irregularities including cases of ‘fake pilots’. Anybody can use the identity of another pilot by merely replacing a photograph. Logging of duty time and flying hours can be fuzzed, if there is no digital backup.’

UDAN Faces Legal Hiccups

The government had in June this year announced its civil aviation policy. Its fallout has been – Airlines will have to pay Rs 7,500 for every flight up to 1,000 km, Rs 8,000 for those between 1,000 and 1,500 km and Rs 8,500 above 1,500 km.

As per the Union civil aviation minister Jayant Sinha, the national civil aviation policy, including the Regional Air Connectivity Scheme (RCS), is expected to increase the number of functional airports in the country to 150-200 in the next few years; there is going to be a massive increase in airport capacity in the country with an expected investment of Rs 1,50,000 – 1,70,000 million by the AAI in the up gradation and modernization of its airdromes.

According to data twitted by the Minister, the aviation sector served 8.67 million people in October 2016. In contrast, the sector had provided services to 7.03 million people in October 2015. The total number of air travelers between January and October 2016 increased to 81.37 million, from little over 66.06 million during the same time period in 2015.

Noting that the aviation sector in India is changing very dramatically, Sinha added, “There is going to be a massive increase in airports capacity in the country.”

At present there are 75 functional airports in the country. The RCS is now being envisaged with a view to connect smaller cities with the metros which will result in more number of airports coming up.

The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has notified a new cess applicable on domestic flights in order to create a corpus for UDAN under RCS. It has been marked to all airlines and posted on the DGCA’s website.

This move has, however, been challenged in court by the airlines despite apparently knowing that their plea may not be entertained. The group Federation of Indian Airlines (FIA) comprising IndiGo, Jet Airways, SpiceJet and GoAir has filed a petition challenging the cess in the Delhi high court. 

The notification reads –
Airlines will pay
– Rs 7,500 for every flight up to 1,000 km,
– Rs 8,000 for flights between 1,000 and 1,500 km and
– Rs 8,500 for flights over 1,500 km.

The airlines are naturally expected to pass on the cost of the new UDAN charge to their passengers, but they are not sure whether they can do so under the law. If passed on, the cess would come to about Rs 50 per passenger on a 180-seater Airbus A320 plane —flown by most of these budget airlines.

“The central government has decided to impose a levy on the following scheduled flights being operated within India at the rates indicated against them to fund regional air connectivity fund created under powers conferred under Rule 88-B of the Aircraft Rules 1937,” DGCA Director General B.S. Bhullar said.

The current rules already mandate that airlines should mark a certain percentage of their total flights for under served areas. Bhullar said those flights would be exempted from the new levy.

Operators of smaller planes such as ATRs, (operated by Air India and Jet Airways) and Bombardier Q400s (operated by SpiceJet) which are below the take-off mass of 40,000 kg, need not pay this levy. These planes mostly fly short-haul routes.

Flights started by operators in future using funds from the UDAN cess will also be exempted from these charges.

The Airports Authority of India has been designated as the nodal agency to monitor the collection of funds from airline operators.

The funds will also be open to audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG)

The ministry expects an estimated Rs 4,000 million to be collected annually as a result of this scheme. The fare for a one-hour journey of about 500 km on a fixed-wing aircraft or a 30-minute journey on a helicopter has been capped at Rs 2,500, with proportionate pricing for routes of different lengths and duration.

The court, however, has declined to stay the imposition of the levy.

The ministry hopes that, if all goes well, a sum of Rs 4,000 million a year or so can be raised to feed the RCS. However, aviation analysts believe that if the ministry had properly conceptualized the non-aeronautical revenue arising out of over 150-200 new and revamped airports, more than Rs 14,000 million a year could have been raised. That would not have inconvenienced anybody; the air fares would have dropped further; and above all, the whole scheme could have been made self – reliant. There would have been no need of any sort of subsidised relief. 

FIA contends that the cess will be a huge burden on the financials of the airlines. As per FIA, the ministry of civil aviation did not have the authority to introduce the levy in this manner. It said the levy made up for the government’s share of the Regional Connectivity Fund (RCF) towards the public purpose of enhancing regional connectivity.

Thus, the Government’s ambitious much hyped Regional Air Connectivity Scheme is going to run on crutches which might not survive in the long run. This attitude of the government proves that the government knows very well that the scheme does not have any attractive inherent financial feasibility which may excite an entrepreneur. If one takes away the various sops and concessions given to RCS, apart from this levy, then one is left with only losses. Against this backdrop, several practical questions are being raised over the economical operation of the scheme. 

The next hearing is slated for 21 December.

Manpower Shortage Becoming a Bottleneck to Air India’s MRO Growth Plans

In January 2015, Air India hived off its engineering department into a separate unit to tap maintenance, repair and overhaul business from other airlines. It still mainly caters to its own aircraft maintenance but aims to double its third party business to Rs 1300 million in FY 2017.

But today Air India is facing a severe shortage of aircraft engineering personnel. Its plans to grow its MRO business faces a big risk.

As per H R Jagannath, CEO of Air India Engineering Services Limited, Air India’s MRO unit has around 600 aircraft maintenance engineers and faces a shortage of around 100-150 personnel. Recently it hired around 100 of its retired engineers on contract but it was inadequate. Air India will require 250 engineers and the manpower shortage could become a bottleneck to Air India’s growth.

Part of the additional manpower through fresh hiring will be utilised to maintain new aircraft being inducted in Air India’s fleet. A part is also to be utilised to cater to vacancies caused by retirements of over 15-20 employees each month.

Hiring engineers essentially means poaching from another airline and is so proving to be a difficult proposition. It normally takes four years for a fresh aircraft technician to secure a type rating and maintenance engineer’s license. An operator like Air India must also groom aspirants for the job. Air India is now offering on-job training to technicians from other companies, enabling them to apply to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) for licence.

“We are seeking support of DGCA and Boeing for the training programme. The government too should support the MRO sector by offering five year tax holiday, ” according to H R Jagannath.

Earlier this year, Air India’s MRO began carrying out ‘C’ check (heavy maintenance check) on Jet Airways Boeing 777 aircraft. It has also signed a MoU with SpiceJet to maintain its Boeing 737 and efforts are underway to secure European Aviation Safety Agency certification for MRO facilities in Nagpur and Thiruvananthapuram.

The MRO unit will also start test and minor repairs of General Electric engines which power Boeing 777 planes at its Nagpur unit later this year and complete overhaul of engines will be carried out from next year. The engine overhaul facility, the first of its kind in India, will significantly boost the MRO business as it can undertake engine repairs of all General Electric engine customers.