Why Indian Airlines has little respect for security protocols?

India’s aviation sector has been in the headlines for the past few months, and for all the wrong reasons. Carriers across the country have been found to be compromising on passenger safety as well as comfort, trying to take shortcuts in the wake of the pandemic, hampering the recovery of what was before COVID-19 the market at fastest growing in the world.

Rising instances of such disrespect for customer safety has prompted India’s aviation watchdog, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), to issue several advisories and fines to airlines over the past few weeks.

This is not the first time India’s aviation sector has come under the radar for its disregard for safety. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic delayed airline operations, the aviation sector was under scrutiny for passenger safety.

According to the promise it keeps, India is the third largest aviation market in the world after the UK and China and is expected to grow significantly over the next few years. Passenger traffic in the country is expected to grow by 6.2% per year by 2040.

However, as the domestic sector prepares to fly again after the COVID-19 pandemic crisis by adding new fleets, it faces the dual challenge of keeping customers safe amid growing competition.

Untrained pilots or lack of pilots

In February this year, Minister of State for Civil Aviation, VK Singh, informed Lok Sabha that India had an annual requirement of around 1,000 new commercial pilots against the current supply of around 200 to 300 pilots in the country.

The country currently has a total of 9,002 pilots employed in 11 domestic and international airlines, according to data available on the DGCA website.

Notably, in 2020, former aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri informed Rajya Sabha that India needed 9,488 pilots over the next five years. Puri had said that every year, 700 to 800 commercial pilot licenses (CPL) are issued by the DGCA, of which 30% are issued to pilots trained in foreign flight training organizations (FTOs).

In order to alleviate the shortage of pilots, the Ministry of Civil Aviation said in a statement: “The DGCA has introduced the On-Demand Online Examination (OLODE) for Aircraft Maintenance Engineer (AME) candidates. and Flying Crew (FC) starting Nov. 2021. This facility allows candidates to choose the date and time from available exam slots.The DGCA has changed its regulations to give flight instructors the right to Authorize flight operations in FTOs Until now this was limited to the Chief Flight Instructor (CFI) or Deputy CFIs only.

“Airports Authority of India (AAI) has introduced a liberalized FTO policy in which the concept of airport fee (payment of revenue share by FTOs to AAI) has been abolished and land leases have been significantly streamlined,” the ministry added.

However, experts believe that these measures would not be the only solution to the current problem of pilot shortages.

Ameya Joshi, Founder of Network Thoughts, says, “The FTO policy goes a long way in addressing the pilot shortage. However, you also have to look at the quality of the drivers that are produced. There are a good number of unemployed drivers in the country and also a need for drivers but the game is not going well, probably because of the quality.”

“A good balance between quality and quantity is essential,” he adds.

Mark Martin, Founder and CEO of Martin Consulting, points to the high cost of pilot training in India as another reason for the pilot shortage. According to private aviation consultancy The Pilot.in, anyone aspiring to pilot training at a reputable DGCA institute must pay a fee of Rs 35-40 lakh for 12 months.

Apart from the shortage of pilots, the aviation industry is also grappling with incidents of flight operations by untrained pilots. In April, the DGCA banned 90 SpiceJet pilots for improper Boeing 737 Max training and operations and issued a show cause notice to the airline.

Singh said the country currently has 34 DGCA-approved FTOs. Between May 2020 and May 2021, AAI approved the establishment of FTOs at 9 airports. The country’s largest flight academy, Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Udan Akademi (IGRUA), has also been authorized to provide pilot training in Gondia and Kalaburgi to improve its flight hours and the use of its aircraft.

However, Martin believes more needs to be done to train quality pilots. “To be a commercial airline pilot, you need to have at least 500 to 1,000 hours of training. Pilots have to fly somewhere. Compared to Indian pilots, after their initial training, pilots from the United States, Australia, Germany and other Western countries start flying to remote locations overseas in order to earn more hours. And this is where we need to focus more on what comes after pilot training. What comes after basic PLC,” says Martin.

Martin observes the need for more quality FTOs to improve pilot training. “We only have one or two world-class training facilities for pilots. We need at least five more,” he notes.

Problem in the cockpit

Although the DGCA is issuing guidelines to narrow the age gap between the captain and co-pilot, a large age gap between the two continues to pose a challenge for airlines. For this reason, several incidents of accidents have been reported in recent years.

Several media reports have previously quoted experienced pilots alleging that young pilots had no interest in learning more about the plane and instead lived the high life and got drunk while on duty.

“The age difference between the captain and the co-pilot is 7 to 10 years in most cases. The idea is to reduce the age gap to two or three years. Because sometimes the captain is too old and the co-pilot is too young. So we have to maintain that balance. There is no harm in having an older pilot, but a small age gap helps with crew retention as well as crew longevity with the fewest retirees. He will always have an advantage from this point of view, ”notes Martin.

Shortage of ground staff

The airline industry around the world has been among the hardest hit by the COVID crisis. Not only have airlines shut down their operations globally, ground staff have also suffered the maximum impact of the pandemic.

In India, things were no different. According to the government, between April 2020 and December 2021, out of the 1.9 lakh employees in the airlines, airports, ground handling and air cargo sector, the aviation industry laid off 19,200 employees, i.e. 10% of its workforce.

According to a report by TeamLease, the Indian aviation industry currently has a shortfall of 15,800 employees for ground operations as well as 1,350 cabin crew members.

Drunk on duty

Between January 2021 and March 2022, a total of 84 workers at 42 airports were found drunk on duty, according to the DGCA. Of these 84 employees, 64% failed the mandatory breath test.

Similarly, between January 1 and April 30, 2022, the DGCA suspended nine pilots and 32 crew members from different airlines after failing pre-flight breathalyzer tests.

In 2019, the DGCA issued a mandatory BA test for all airport workers as well as cabin crew and pilots.

Cyber ​​attacks on the rise

Another challenge plaguing the Indian aviation sector is the growing number of ransomware attacks. In the recent, a cyberattack had blocked the operations of some SpiceJet systems and slowed flight departures, resulting in the stranding of hundreds of passengers after boarding for hours.

However, this is not the first time that an airline has been the victim of cyberattacks. In February last year, the data of as many as 45 lakh of Air India’s passengers was leaked after the airline’s passenger system – run by air transport IT specialist SITA – was hit by a cybersecurity attack.

Raj Pagariya, cybersecurity expert and founder of Cyberblog India, explains: “Some aircraft systems are mission critical. And if the cyberattack occurs in a critical system, it can become a problem and have serious consequences. Not only for the airline where the attack happened, but for other airlines that operate in the same region. Such incidents of cyberattacks also pose a risk to all industry stakeholders.

As the aviation industry relies heavily on technology, from flight reservations to flight operations, air traffic control and management, hacking a system would mean operational chaos and put passenger data at risk.

Martin observes that these cyberattacks exposed the fault lines between airline and aviation software systems.

“Nearly all of the important critical airline software, such as flight dispatch software, operations management software, maintenance planning and maintenance operations software, is hosted on third-party cloud servers outside the company. ‘India that are not secure,’ he said.

“We have to ask that when other industries host their software on local cloud servers in India, why is the aviation industry still lacking,” adds Martin.

He points to a more vigilant approach by the DGCA and the Ministry of Information and Technology with Cert-In to audit airline software systems.

“The DGCA must take stronger steps to devote itself to an integrated audit team of the aviation information system to examine the shortcomings and problems encountered by most airlines. In 2022, and in the wake of recently renewed steps in IT and several other security aspects, the DGCA should reorganize and realign its mode of operation, in order to ensure better oversight of airlines,” notes Martin.

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