Earlier this week Bharat Bhushan, head of India's aviation regulator, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), was unexpectedly removed from his position. The timing and manner of his removal with no reason offered reflects a poor overall government approach to managing the sector.
Mr Bhushan's dismissal comes just a week after the Cabinet Appointments Committee extended his tenure, and with only three months to go before a new and full-time Director General was to be appointed.
The role of India's Civil Aviation Director General is a high profile and sensitive one and such actions not only have a negative impact on morale within the DGCA but greatly damage India’s international image at a time when global sentiment on the India story, particularly on governance issues, is already in decline.
DG Bhushan applied a strong focus on cleaning up the internal operations of the regulator
Mr Bhushan’s tenure occurred during a challenging period in India’s aviation history with several carriers under financial stress. CAPA has in the past been critical of some of the Director General’s actions, notably the manner in which the findings of an audit report into safety issues were played out in the media in Jan-12. And the regulator’s micro-intervention on matters such as peak season pricing and airlines being able to charge for exit row seats or to check-in a second bag have diverted attention from more fundamental issues. But, Mr. Bhushan also deserves great credit for the manner in which he has attempted to clean-up the internal operations of the DGCA. His responsiveness to the fake pilots scandal for example, backed-up by quick and meaningful action is to be commended.
Earlier neglect left the DGCA ill-equipped to handle its responsibilities
The root of the problems at the DGCA in fact goes back several years. During the period of rapid growth between 2004 and 2008 the DGCA was neglected and was not equipped with the resources to handle the demands placed upon it. Without the requisite manpower, and more importantly without the technical skills and expertise, the regulator became weak and over-burdened. The business and general aviation sector had particularly poor safety and security oversight. In 2009 the US Federal Aviation Administration, concerned by what it considered to be gross under-staffing particularly in the Directorate of Airworthiness, threatened to downgrade India to Category II status.
At the time, under the newly appointed DG, Dr. Zaidi, significant efforts were made to strengthen the institution, with almost 500 additional staff recruited. Rapid improvements were observed and India passed the next FAA audit and retained its Category I status. However, since then there have been a number of changes in key positions in the Ministry and the momentum was lost. In the last two years alone domestic traffic has grown by 36% and international by 19%, however there has been virtually no increase in resources at the DGCA so under-staffing is once again a major concern.
FAA could once again threaten to downgrade India to Category II
As a result of these issues, regulatory oversight is weak which in a growing market increases near term safety risks and CAPA believes that such concerns could lead to India once again being faced with the possibility of a downgrade by the FAA. Long term institutional strengthening of the organisation should be the highest priority as this has traditionally been the DGCA’s weakness.
The DGCA needs to conduct an updated assessment of its resource requirements to handle the current size of the industry as well as developing a structured plan to keep pace with the projected rapid growth over the next decade, rather than constantly play catch-up in response to crises.
Although 136 officers are in the process of being recruited, this is just the first step. The next major task is to train the workforce to bring them up to the required levels of expertise. Ongoing skills development and professional training is critical given the rapidly evolving landscape with respect to technology and regulation. This needs to be supported by a well-defined succession plan that grooms key people to move into senior roles, to ensure that the organisational capabilities do not disappear with the retirement of staff.
A number of senior officials have recently been suspended due to impropriety, a positive measure in its own right but this has led to the loss of expertise and the middle ranks have never been provided with adequate training to be able to fill these roles.
A renewed focus on safety is paramount
CAPA believes the weakness of the DGCA is one of the most critical issues for India's industry in FY13. Safety is paramount and without an independent and capable regulator India will not be able to achieve the standards which it must aim for. It is disappointing to note that the focus on safety which emerged in the aftermath of the Mangalore accident in May-2010 has evaporated.
The formal report card is dismal. The Civil Aviation Safety Advisory Council has not met for the last 12 months. Incident and operational data analysis is poor and an independent accident investigation bureau or a safety board are yet to be established.
Institutional strengthening must start immediately, and industry must play its part
A concerted effort to restructure the DGCA now appears to be on hold pending the establishment of a new unified and independent regulator in the form of an Indian Civil Aviation Authority.
However these plans are moving slowly and it could take another 12-18 months before the authority is functioning. Addressing the skills deficit at the DGCA cannot wait until then and urgent measures need to be taken in the interim.
The regulator cannot take sole responsibility. Industry also needs to play a greater role through self-regulation, which is currently not happening to the level required. Ultimately the pilots, engineers, flight operations personnel and management are often in the best position to identify and respond to areas of concern.
Over the past two years, CAPA has consistently reiterated in all relevant safety forums that India needs a comprehensive risk assessment across the entire industry, not a piecemeal approach. This should address:
- the oversight capability of the regulator,
- airspace congestion,
- aerodrome safety,
- airline systems and processes, and
- training and personnel issues.
Transformation growth ahead brings massive challenges: Four key steps
Indian aviation could witness transformational growth over the next decade. CAPA projects that total airport passenger traffic could increase from approximately 160 million in 2011 to 450 million by 2020, making India the third largest aviation market in the world behind the US and China. But if this is to occur, and occur safely, the establishment of a strong and independent regulator is an essential foundation.
- First of all, the ambit of the DGCA should be redefined to focus solely on safety; it should be unburdened from the current broad range of responsibilities that also encompass commercial matters which distract from the core mission.
- Secondly safety is a matter in which politics has no place. If India is to achieve its safety objectives, technical regulation of the aviation sector must be independent, transparent and skilled. There must be a common purpose between the Ministry and the DGCA which has not always been the case, creating an environment which facilitates collaboration with industry.
- Thirdly, significant investment is required in personnel, training and skills development to ensure strong domain expertise. This professionalism must extend to the very top.
- Fourthly, the position of Director General should be held by a technocrat and not a bureaucrat. Tenures of 3-5 years will provide greater stability, rather than the more frequent turnover that we have seen in recent times. In several instances, including Mr Bhushan, the Director General held the position as an additional charge, limiting the attention which they could provide to the role.
In light of the growth challenges ahead, institutional strengthening of the DGCA is critical.
If India is to achieve its safety mission this matter must be addressed as a matter of priority. The growth of the entire sector (and India's aviation reputation) is at stake.
This CAPA perspective on safety is the first in a series on structural issues in the Indian aviation sector which will be released over the coming weeks. Each of these topics will also be discusssed at the forthcoming CAPA India Aviation Summit in Mumbai on 30-31 October 2012. For further information visit http://centreforaviation.com/events/capa-india-aviation-summit-2012/