The sharp increase in the number of flights hitting technical snags either mid-air or pre-takeoff has not only put the travel sector in a bind, it has also rightly put the Indian civil aviation authority, the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), under a spotlight. The DGCA has identified an insufficient number of licensed aircraft maintenance engineers and skilled engineers at each airport who can determine if the aircraft is fit to fly, along with a shortage of certified staff to cater to the multiple arrivals and departures within short intervals, as the causes of the increasing number of snags. It is worrying that the agency, during its spot-checks, also found an increasing trend of minimum equipment list (MEL) releases of aircraft. An MEL allows the plane to be operated safely even if something is broken on the plane under specific conditions or for a restricted flight duration before it has to compulsorily undergo maintenance.
The DGCA has finally woken up and put SpiceJet under regulatory scrutiny, and civil aviation minister Jyotiraditya Scindia has held one-on-one meetings with carriers and instructed them to take corrective action. But this brings into question the airlines’ concern towards passenger safety as well as the level of adherence to regulatory guidelines. To put the magnitude of the situation into perspective, according to DGCA data, in 2020, there were 10 serious incidents related to flight safety. This month, SpiceJet was issued a show-cause notice after at least eight technical snags.
In a statement pertaining to the new guidelines, the DGCA specified that all aircraft at base and transit stations shall be released by certifying staff holding AME category B1/B2 licence with appropriate authorisation by their organisations. The increase in MEL incidents, then, appears to be due to category A staff being authorised to clear aircraft. To put it simply, a category A licence-holder is authorised to maintain aircraft within the limit and is known as a technician. Meanwhile, a B1 licence-holder is authorised to deal with the mechanics of an aircraft such as the wings and engines, while a B2 licence -holder is authorised to deal with the electronic components. Why has the industry been slow to re-hire the requisite staff? And why has the regulatory authority stayed mum till matters went out of hand? Moreover, it can also be questioned why the specification about only B1/B2 licence-holders being able to clear aircraft for flights came now, instead of already being in place. Though the recent incidents did not result in casualties, it is obvious that airlines are cutting corners to maximise profits after the pandemic-induced slowdown.
As of December 2021, according to the civil aviation ministry’s data, ground staff had fallen by 13,300. At present, there are a total of 487 operational airstrips/airports in the country, a drastic increase from the 301 total airports in FY21. While expanding the aviation space is beneficial, the trend of cutting down personnel-strength due to the pandemic should have had the authorities on alert. As per 2019 data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), in India, 6.2 million jobs were supported by the airlines industry, adding $35 billion (1.5%) to the GDP. For such a big industry, it is imperative that the DGCA as well as airlines step up to comply with international standards to support its growth. There should be zero tolerance for any compromise with safety standards by airlines.