How safe are the Indian skies?

A poor safety culture and lax regulatory oversight make flying in India risky. And critics blame the Directorate General of Civil Aviation for this state of affairs and accuse it of becoming a controlling agency rather than the regulator or facilitator it is meant to be.

Published : Oct 13, 2021 06:00 IST

“If Black Swans leave one feeling helpless, Grey Rhinos teach us that we do have the power to act.” What Noreena Hertz, the English academic and author of Eyes Wide Open, meant when she made this statement could very well be applied to how the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) operates. India’s premier civil aviation regulator is responsible for the regulation of air transport services to/from/within India and for the enforcement of civil air regulations, air safety and airworthiness standards, and has the power to make effective decisions and act. But does it? More importantly, is it allowed to act effectively, regulate without bias and for the larger good of air safety in India? Does the DGCA have adequate, trained, qualified and honest staff who can discharge their duties efficiently? Most aviation pundits would say no.

They cite numerous operational violations and deficiencies by airlines, poorly trained pilots and unlicensed airports to emphasise the DGCA’s ‘callous’ attitude towards effective regulatory oversight and air safety issues. According to data from the Airports Authority of India (AAI), the 110 functional airports in India catered to about 14.26 million passengers this August, a 35 per cent increase over the previous month, indicating a sustained recovery in air travel. But, how many of these airports are licensed and meet all safety parameters while operating, as opposed to operating under exemptions?

Speaking to Frontline, Arun Kumar, the Director General, DGCA, refuted the allegations that the DGCA was reluctant to act against several airports despite audits finding deficiencies in them, especially in runways and firefighting services. He said that as many as 86 airports have had their licences renewed after they met the long checklist of regulations and that flight operations inspectors carried out more than 3,000 inspections a year. Said Arun Kumar: “I can’t shut down an airport just because of a bird-hit. Safety must be managed, suitably arranged. Risk and safety assessments must be done. If there are to be absolutely no exemptions, then I will have to basically shut down all airports. While in new airports you can impose regulations across the spectrum, you need to give exemptions in the legacy airfields.”

DGCA’s indifference

From dating a letter nine months ahead of the actual conduct of an audit in a particular month, to poor runway signage and markings that do not conform to international aviation standards even at high-risk airports, narrow perimeter roads around airports, incorrect runway friction testing methods and infrequent testing, flawed rubber removal from runways, faulty HR polices with regard to crew utilisation, and a shortage of air traffic controllers, the DGCA has been seen as largely indifferent to ensuring safe skies.

For instance, Air India pilots stated that the one occasion the DGCA did act was when it arbitrarily, illegally, and together with the airline’s management, enforced detrimental changes in flight duty time limitations (FDTL) from September 2012. Its rationale was that the new FDTL would lead to optimum utilisation of Air India pilots and crew members and reduce the requirements of operating staff. The FDTL guidelines have been imposed on the basis of Civil Aviation Requirements (CARs), which are basically rules issued in compliance with Section 5A, subsection 1 of the Aircraft Act, 1934, in conjunction with rule 29C of the Aircraft Rules, 1937. According to pilots, the guidelines endangered the lives of over 200,000 flyers in 750 long-haul flights to Australia. (The Delhi to Sydney and Melbourne routes were the first ones to be tried with the new FDTL rules.) The pilots claimed that the new FDTL induced a risk factor that was 26 times the normal. The DGCA, which acknowledged that it had received complaints from pilots of SOP violations, chose to do nothing about them.

Also read: Federation of Indian Pilots wants enhanced safety features in planes

According to aviation experts, flying into or taking off from an Indian airport is fraught with risk. “You’re flying on horoscope,” said Captain Mohan Ranganathan, an aviation safety consultant. Captain Shakti Lumba, a former pilot who was instrumental in setting up IndiGo’s operations in 2005 besides heading Alliance Air, Air India’s regional arm, and Captain Amit Singh, a 30-year veteran in the industry and founder of the NGO ‘SafetyMatters’, said that it was a miracle that more accidents did not occur.

Mangaluru air crash

Accidents, however, do happen. In May 2010 an Air India Express (flight AXB 1344) Boeing 737-800 from Dubai overran the tabletop runway while landing at Mangaluru airport, killing 158 passengers and crew. The aircraft ploughed through a 90-metre (300 feet) sand arrestor bed, which failed to stop it. A large portion of the aircraft’s right-side wing and engine smashed against the concrete socket of the Instrument Landing System’s localiser antenna, causing them to separate from the aircraft, and fuel to spill on to the engine. As a result, the aircraft caught fire even as it plunged down a gorge, 790 feet beyond the end of the runway, and came to a stop around 980 feet past the top of the slope.

It was the third deadliest air crash in Indian aviation history. The court of inquiry (CoI) headed by Air Marshal B.N. Gokhale, former Vice Chief of Air Staff of the Indian Air Force, determined that the crash was a result of pilot error. The investigation found that the flight crew had failed to plan their descent profile properly, resulting in the aircraft remaining high on approach. The captain, the investigators found, failed to discontinue this unstabilised approach and persisted in continuing with the landing despite three calls by the first officer (co-pilot) to execute a ‘go around’.

The CoI stated: “Probably in view of ambiguity in various instructions empowering the ‘copilot’ to initiate a ‘go around’, the first officer (co-pilot) gave repeated calls to this effect but did not take over the controls to actually discontinue the ill-fated approach.”

‘Litany of lies’

According to Captain Mohan Ranganathan, the CoI report was a “well massaged litany of lies”. He said: “The government failed to ensure that all laws of civil aviation were complied with. The aircraft crashed down the gorge by 80-100 metres. The aircraft wing hit the concrete structure that was illegal, broke, and the resultant fire engulfed the aircraft and killed 158 as the rescue did not reach them in time. The law requires that only a frangible structure shall be permitted. The government built a solid, concrete structure. Immediately after the crash, they rebuilt the structure with steel girders, again, against all laws. The CoI covered up all the deficiencies of government agencies and blamed the pilot alone. Those on board burnt to death as the firefighting team did not reach in time. The inquiry report cites narrow roads outside the perimeter preventing rescue and firefighting (RFF) vehicles such as the Rosenbaur from being able to reach the crash site quickly. If they had carried out a full-scale emergency test they would have known that the perimeter road was too narrow to accommodate the Rosenbaur RFF vehicle.”

Ranganathan further said that civil aviation in India was not “a well-oiled machine but a well-greased cancer”. “Several regulatory appointments in crucial positions in safety oversight has the virus of conflict of interest. Airlines and airfields are declared safe, sweeping aside the truth. Accidents are ‘massaged’ as incidents, to keep the slate clean. We are sitting on a time bomb when safety is brushed aside in Mangaluru, Kozhikode, Jammu, Patna and Bagdogra. Lives were lost in Kozhikode, Mangaluru and Patna and there is no accountability. Political interests and commercial interests of airlines take priority over passenger lives.”

Also read: Ground reality at the DGCA

Commercial considerations and the desire not to inconvenience passengers seem to override passenger safety. Arun Kumar, however, refuted it, saying: “There is no leniency, and no one is pressuring us not to act. We spare no one. We have conducted two audits on TrueJet and SpiceJet, and even issued notices. But the airline business is a very complex business, with huge financial implications. Occasionally, hand-holding [of the airlines] is needed.”

The final investigation report into the Air India Express crash at Kozhikode airport in August 2020 that killed 21 people, including both pilots, attributes the crash to non-adherence to standard operating procedures by the commander. In short, ‘pilot error’.

The Kozhikode disaster

The accident happened when the aircraft was attempting a landing in tailwind conditions on the tabletop airport. According to the report, which was released recently by the Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau (AAIB), on an ‘unstabilised’ approach to land (in layman’s terms, an unsafe descent to land), the aircraft touched down deep into the runway, overshot the safety area, damaged a navigational aid antenna before plunging 110 feet down the tabletop runway and coming to an abrupt halt on the airport’s perimeter road just short of the wall. Despite the fuselage breaking into three and the engines shearing off from the wings and fuel leaking from both wing tanks, there was no post-crash fire.

The AAIB report stated: “The role of systemic failures as a contributory factor cannot be overlooked in this accident. A large number of similar accidents/incidents that have continued to take place, more so in Air India Express, reinforce existing systemic failures within the aviation sector. These usually occur due to [the] prevailing safety culture that gives rise to errors, mistakes, and violation of routine tasks performed by people operating within the system.”

Experts such as Captain Amit Singh, however, believe that “blaming the pilots alone for an accident is like addressing the symptom rather than the root cause”. He is convinced that the probable root cause of the Kozhikode accident “is the poor safety culture prevalent in India, the lax attitude of the regulator in maintaining flight standards and the ineffective regulatory oversight by the DGCA”. Said Amit Singh: “The AAIB report highlights a few issues, but it is unable to conclude the report due to the amateurish level of the investigation.”

Blaming the regulator for the Air India Express accident, he cited lacunae in flight crew training requirements; the DGCA’s Flight Standards Directorate (FSD) permitted the captain of the ill-fated flight “to jump back and forth” between airlines (Air India and Air India Express which operate under separate Air Operator Permits (AOP) and hence have separate training manuals) and between aircraft (Boeing 737 and Boeing 777) “without following the DGCA’s CARs”.

Amit Singh also said that the FSD’s inspectors are required to carry out surveillance flights operating to/from critical airfields such as Kozhikode, Port Blair, Sikkim, etc., but “as per the accident report, FSD, DGCA, did not carry out any surveillance flight during the period Jan 2019-June 2020”.

Experts like him are also critical of the DGCA for looking the other way when airlines do not comply with the DGCA’s requirement for 100 per cent flight data monitoring. Said Amit Singh: “The Kozhikode accident report has highlighted the discrepancy in the data on prolonged flare (the transition phase when a fixed wing aircraft is between the final approach and the actual touchdown on the landing surface) between those sourced from the DGCA and Air India Express. Long landing (when an airplane exceeds the touchdown zone) was one of the causes of the Mangaluru accident.” Pilots also criticise the DGCA for turning a blind eye when “red flags over serious deficiencies in Air India Express’ safety culture popped up”.

Also read: Safety at risk

According to Amit Singh, India does not comply with the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO, the United Nation’s aviation watchdog) timelines for the implementation of a safety management system.

He said: “Operators such as Air India Express have contributed to the same. The Kozhikode accident report has pointed out this deficiency. The pilot’s training record has repeatedly highlighted areas of concern: Landing flare height (low or prolonged float) and decision-making. An in-depth analysis was not carried out either by Air India or Air India Express (the two airlines he flew for) or by the DGCA. The accident report mentions that the pilot had Type II Diabetes, a condition that can affect the depth perception of the individual and in turn the ability to decide when to start the approach for a landing. Since training and medical (departments) work in silos, each could not determine the cause or the effect, and the system allowed the pilot to pass through. An effective safety management system would have highlighted these two areas of concern and connected the dots. Sadly, the DGCA did not have an effective oversight of the airline’s safety management system.”

Air accidents in India

According to data primarily sourced from the DGCA’s accident investigation reports, since Independence 2,173 people have died in 52 commercial passenger airline accidents that have had at least one fatality. Of these, an overwhelming 1,740 people, or 80 per cent, died in mishaps that were attributed to pilot error. Pilot error was also found to be the cause in eight of India’s 10 most fatal air crashes that together claimed 1,352 lives.

Although there have been over a 100 accidents involving commercial airliners, the fact that they have not resulted in any fatalities brings cheer to DGCA officials. Said a senior official on the condition of anonymity: “Despite the manifold increase in the number of passengers handled by Indian airports over the past few decades, the number of fatalities caused by air accidents has reduced significantly. While in the 1991-2000 decade, 552 people were killed [including 349 in the 1996 mid-air collision between a Saudi Arabian Airline aircraft shortly after takeoff and a Kazakhstan Airlines aircraft approaching Delhi airport) in seven fatal crashes, the 2001-2010 decade saw just one, the Air India Express crash in Mangaluru. And since then, during the 2011-2020 decade there has just been one air crash [the Kozhikode air crash of August 2020].”

Most aviation pundits are, however, not prepared to accept Arun Kumar’s proclamation that the “accident rate is negligible”. Said Ranganathan, echoing the views of many aviation experts: “The DGCA covers up accidents as minor incidents. There have been at least ten hull losses [when the aircraft is damaged beyond economical repair] during the last decade.” They point to hull loss accidents involving Kingfisher Airlines, Jet Airlines, SpiceJet, Sahara Airlines and a corporate jet belonging to the Essar Group that crashed in Indore.

Pilots also ask why the ICAO has had to conduct so many safety audits of India’s air safety readiness if the DGCA’s record on effective safety oversight was so good. The ICAO carried out the Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme for India in November 2017, followed by another in February 2018. Results showed that India’s score had nosedived to 57.44 per cent from 65.82 per cent, placing India even below Pakistan, Nepal and several other countries. However, after the DGCA undertook several steps, the score improved to 74.

Arun Kumar revealed that the United States’ Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would be auditing the DGCA in October, with the ICAO doing so thereafter. The ICAO audit is expected to check safety aspects of airlines, airports, ground handling firms, aircraft airworthiness, aircraft operations, personnel training and licensing in order to ascertain whether they are up to international standards.

Appendage of the Ministry

The DGCA, which also coordinates all of India’s regulatory functions with the ICAO, is, as its website proclaims, “an attached office of the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA)”. And therein lies unarguably the biggest of the DGCA’s shortcomings. It is strapped, as an appendage of the MoCA, and the Minister. Despite the Lok Sabha passing the Aircraft (Amendment) Bill, 2020, which provides for statutory backing to the DGCA, the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security and the AAIB, the DGCA is still totally dependent on the Ministry. Explained Captain Shakti Lumba: “Although the DGCA is a statutory body, it is not an autonomous body. Its budget comes from the Ministry. And because of this, it cannot concentrate on the development of its objectives. It would be better if the DGCA is allowed to utilise the money that comes from licensing fees, etc.”

He also emphasised that the DGCA was buried under an avalanche of rules and that there was no ease of doing business. “Yes, we are deregulated on paper, but in actual fact we are over-regulated. Today we have exemptions, CARs, AICs [Aeronautical Information Circulars], directives, etcetera, put out by the DGCA. Compliance not only becomes very difficult, [but] it is also subjective and depends on the person looking at the file. Also, people at the helm should understand that different operations, chartered, cargo or transport, have different limitations, [but] in India one rule applies to all. In addition, every bureaucrat adds one or two lines to the rule book. The government should understand that the regulator is not a rule-making body, rather it is an oversight body. The DGCA needs a total upgrade. Instead of being a safety regulator or facilitator, it is a controlling agency and a pretty stupid one at that.”

Arun Kumar claimed that he had written to the government asking for more autonomy, “especially in matters like finance, hiring”. He said he was “ready to do anything just as long as the Indian regulator is robust, able to face up to the scrutiny of the world and delivers”.

No domain experts

Shakti Lumba opined that the DGCA had been ‘captured’ by the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) lobby, with nine of the regulator’s directors general (D.Gs) since 1980 being IAS officers, who do not necessarily have the domain experience. Kanu Gohain, who retired in 2008, is the last technocrat to head the DGCA .

Said Lumba: “The ICAO route has become convenient for bureaucrats in the Civil Aviation Ministry. Earlier, the rule specified that only an IAS officer not below the rank of Additional Secretary could become the D.G. But today a Joint Secretary is sent to the ICAO as India’s representative, then the Ministry tweaks the qualification requirements for the DGCA and the IAS officer sits at the helm.”

Also read: New Delhi sticking to old times in terms of aviation safety

Lumba believes that one of India’s biggest aviation issues is that its regulations are outdated and not in sync with the rest of the world. “The world either follows the FAA or the EASA [European Union Aviation Safety Agency]. While West Asia and even Bangladesh follow EASA regulations, China follows the FAA. India recently reached an important agreement with EASA on air safety. An excellent initiative, it is hoped that this cooperation is extended to include the adoption of EASA rules and practices in toto by the DGCA, and not in bits and pieces that are convenient.”

Over the years, the DGCA has become a facilitator and implementor of the directives of the Civil Aviation Minister, who has his own agenda. If Hardeep Puri, the previous Minister, was gung-ho over regional connectivity, the current Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia is keen on drones.

Explained Amit Singh: “You have the D.G. and the Civil Aviation Secretary, who are bureaucrats, and the Minister, who is a politician. What can you expect? The level of competence is poor, the rules archaic. Rules are also copy-paste jobs, good on paper, but no due diligence has been conducted and so cannot be demonstrated. And when an operator says he cannot implement a particular rule, the DGCA starts giving exemptions, which become the norm. Neither can people taking the decisions envisage an accident situation. They are not trained for that. Policymakers have no understanding or inclination on safety. Junior officers, thanks to time-bound promotions, are today advising the D.G. on matters of safety. And when one has no understanding of safety, can he have oversight?”

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment