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Is flying becoming unsafe in India?
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View from the ground - is flying becoming unsafe? (COMMENTARY)
Nov 29, 2006, 2:30 GMT 
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Is flying in India becoming unsafe? It is a million dollar question to which no ready answer is available. The rapid expansion in aviation leading to shortage of trained hands and diluting of standards for pilots and engineers along with poor infrastructure are a deadly cocktail which can make flying dangerous in any country. Most of these factors are present in India at present.

The airlines have multiplied. More and more foreign airlines are flying into India and all are adding new capacity every year. The present trend suggests that the capacity to be added every year will lead to doubling of air capacity every three years. There are not enough pilots or engineers available to meet the new demand. The result is that airlines are indulging in large-scale poaching, hiring of foreign pilots and lowering of standards to enable pilots to fly even after they have reached the age of superannuation.

The rapid expansion is also putting a strain on our infrastructure. The airports are not in a position to handle such large volumes of traffic and their efficiency is suffering. The newly recruited staff also lacks adequate training and familiarisation with new equipment installed at various airports. On account of crowding, aircrafts in India are forced to spend 30 minutes to 45 minutes in the air circling over an airport before they get clearance to land. This is a common practice at all busy airports in the world, but for our airports this is a new experience.

Stories like planes taking wrong turns to enter prohibited areas or flying too close to each other and thus increasing possibility of collision are coming out with a frequency that raises questions about our safety standards. Flying skills have suffered because of lowering of standards relating to age and number of hours of flying required before one is declared qualified to fly. Rules regarding the presence of at least one member of crew being an Indian have also been relaxed. It has to be admitted that regulations regarding age are a hazard, as it has to be accepted that with age, reflexes become slower.

Airlines being forced to hire fresh recruits are also finding that the fast training processes in countries like the US and Australia leave much to be desired. To fly in the US, where adequate radar coverage is available and an airport can be found every few kilometres, is a different cup of tea as compared to India where pilots have to fly long distances and use their map reading skills - which are not even a part of training in other countries.

The Directorate General of Civil Aviation in India remains a part of aviation ministry instead of being an independent body. The result is that it virtually carries out the orders of the ministry and lowers the standards as desired by their masters instead of taking an independent or rigorous standards stand. There has been a long standing demand for making it an independent entity like the Election Commission, but the ministry has not agreed to it even though this pattern is followed the world over.

The result is that flying in India has reached a point where serious doubts have arisen about the safety standards. There has been an attempt to make the regulator independent of government control, but the aviation ministry is refusing to budge.

The ministry has signed an agreement with the Federal Aviation Authority of the US to develop and modernise infrastructure in India, but have not agreed to make the DGCA into a statutory body with teeth to make flying safer. The number of compromises being made with regulations and lowering of standards would not have been possible if the regulatory authority was not a part of the ministry.

At the moment Indian companies are scratching the bottom of the barrel to find adequate number of hands to keep planes in the air. The search takes them to countries where pilots lack fluency in English, which is the standard language of communication between pilots and air controllers. Some incidents reported recently are a result of poor ability to follow instructions.

The search for trained hands is also leading to a large number of pilots and engineers in the Indian Air Force leaving their jobs and joining commercial flying where salaries are rising at a galloping pace because of current shortages. The reason for the current mess is that India for years kept aviation growth under check. Now we have turned the other way round, where unregulated growth is taking place without bothering about the capacity of infrastructure or safety or ability considerations.

Serious accidents have been avoided so far because the old regulators had insisted on installation of anti-collision equipment in planes on mandatory basis. But things can go wrong despite this precaution as the present cocktail of lower standards, inadequate infrastructure and overstressed air controllers is a deadly combination and our luck can give way anytime. Not very long ago flying in China and Russia was considered unsafe. Is India about to join that dubious club?

(Brij Bhardwaj has covered aviation for the period of 20 years for Hindustan Times and has been a consultant with aircraft manufacturers. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at

2006 Indo-Asian News Service

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