Air safety rating: India's FAA upgrade plan could be delayed

Written by Roudra Bhattacharya | New Delhi | Updated: May 21 2014, 13:43pm hrs
Air IndiaIndia is now in the same bracket as Indonesia, Zimbabwe and Paraguay after FAA downgraded the country's air safety rating.
The civil aviation ministrys plan to approach the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in June for restoring the country's air safety rating to category 1 could get delayed by a few months.

This is because the domestic regulator, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), is behind its schedule of completing the hiring of 75 Flight Operations Inspectors (FOIs), a primary requirement for the upgrade. In fact, over 50% of the 613 sanctioned posts for technical staff at the regulator are still vacant.

A civil aviation ministry official told FE that a review meeting on the hiring of FOIs by the DGCA was held on Tuesday, and that the hiring of all 75 is likely to be done by May-end. In the first lot, DGCA has already hired 29 Senior FOIs and FOIs of the planned 75, while it has also received a further set of applications for the second lot of FOIs.

Unless we feel we are completely ready and have our preparedness verified by another agency, we cannot go to the FAA seeking a fresh audit. We will take a call by month-end depending on where we stand on the hiring. The delays are happening both because it is tough to find the qualified people and also it takes time for them to finish their notice period at the current job and join the DGCA, the official said.

He added, DGCA has had a shortfall traditionally of people. Like in the technical staff, we have about 300 which is far less than the sanctioned strength of 613. We are constrained by not having the enough number of people eligible to be promoted at the senior levels within the technical staff.

The FAA had downgraded Indias air safety rating on January 31 after a series of audits in 2013, putting India in the same bracket as Indonesia, Zimbabwe and Paraguay.

While being a sore point in terms of national self esteem and business sentiments, the downgrade also meant that Air India and Jet Airways cannot add any new flights to the US. Existing code-share pacts for Jet with US-based airlines also stand suspended, while there is a looming threat that aviation regulators from the European Union, Japan and other developed nations may follow the FAA with further downgrades.

There was also a worry that the downgrade may lead to a delay in Air Indias integration with Star Alliance, though that has been put to rest, with Star Alliance officials announcing that Air India will join from July.

As of January, two requirements remained down from an initial list of 31 presented in September 2013 by the FAA, these are the hiring adequate number of FOIs on permanent basis and training airworthiness officers for different types of aircraft used by both charter and scheduled operators. While the latter part is complete, the DGCA has been facing numerous challenges in hiring FOIs. This is despite the Cabinet approving the hiring of 75 Flight Operations Inspectors (FOIs) at industry-competitive salaries on January 29.

Since the downgrade in January, the DGCA has turned the heat on US aviation companies.

In March, it warned Boeing that it could take any action if teething problems with its B787 Dreamliner aircraft in the Air India fleet were not fixed soon. In February, it had also grounded a United Airlines flight from Newark to Mumbai citing damages to the engine cover.

To improve its image, DGCA has also been getting strict with non-scheduled operators at home, pulling up various corporates like GMR, Reliance and Bajaj Auto for operating flights without mandatory tests, required equipment or paperwork, and in some cases, for having alcohol on board, which is prohibited under Indian aviation laws.

While the civil aviation ministry hopes to regain its Category 1 air safety rating in about six months' time after the downgrade, other countries in a similar position had taken a longer time. Israel took four years to regain the Category 1 status after a downgrade in 2008, while it took Venezuela 11 years after a downgrade in 1995.