Indian airlines: Not safe enough?


India’s aviation sector is at risk of losing airline business in the US because of the threat of being downgraded by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for consistently not adhering to the safety standards of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

The downgrade will mean that airlines like Jet Airways and Air India which operate to and from the US will face stringent security checks when planes land there, said the Times of India. 

Countries are classified by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) according to safety standards and procedures. An agency of the United Nations, ICAO codifies the principles and techniques of international air navigation and fosters the planning and development of international air transport to ensure safe and orderly growth. ICAO’s Council adopts standards and recommended practices concerning air navigation, prevention of unlawful interference, and facilitation of border-crossing procedures for international civil aviation.

FAA spokesman Les Dorr told eTN that the international aviation safety assessment (IASA) program created in 1994 allows FAA to send teams to evaluate whether the civil aviation authority of a country (not individual airlines) is administrating the aviation system in accordance with international standards – typically promulgated by the ICAO.

“When we send the teams to foreign countries, we find one of two things: either they adhere to the standards, or they have some deficiencies which make them not in full compliance of standards. If they do comply and their airlines have service to the US, they can continue to fly in or expand the service subject to other restrictions,” said Dorr.

If they have been found lacking in safety standards, their service will be frozen at that level if they have service to the US. The FAA then would work with the civil aviation authority to help the authority identify deficiencies in order to comply.

According to Dorr, the FAA is sending a team within the next month to evaluate the status of India.

“India’s Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) is lobbying hard with the FAA to buy six months’ time to fall in line with the ICAO norms and prevent India from being downgraded from Category 1 to Category 2,’’ a source told the Times of India, adding that the FAA team was in Delhi as part of its international aviation safety assessment program. 

Category 2 nations are those that violate ICAO norms. As a Category 2 nation, India will join the ranks of Serbia, the Ukraine, Indonesia and Guyana.

These countries may have deficiencies in safety assurance, training, or proper personnel, said Door. “If downgraded, Air India and Jet will not be able to change or expand their US schedules. Also, other airlines will be unable to start operations there. If there are violations in the case of any Air India or Jet plane, the aircraft can be impounded and a heavy fine levied,” wrote Manju V of the Times of India.

Washington, DC-based lawyer, pilot, aviation accident litigator, international lecturer, and former chief trial lawyer for the FAA, Michael J. Pangia said a country’s aviation can return to Category 1 only if it satisfies the list of deficiencies the investigation has disclosed. Pakistan and China are examples of countries that are currently in Category 1.

Also a council to the International Society of Air Safety Investigators, Pangia said, “In a downgrade, we don’t have the authority to cut scheduled flights however. The effect will be an economic pressure – the viability of the airline to attract customers will be affected, as well as airline insurance premiums,” he said, adding that the FAA only has jurisdiction over the foreign aviation’s activities in the US, as well as US activities in foreign countries.

Returning to Category1 depends entirely on the aviation administration of the country, Dorr said. “Clearly, it’s in the best interest of the foreign civil aviation authority to adhere to international standards. Though we offer assistance to bring them back up to standard, it’s ultimately their responsibility to do so,” he said, adding the FAA won’t be looking at individual airports or airlines but whether or not the Indian Civil Aviation Authority meets the standards.

Dorr advised that the FAA makes an announcement if a country does get downgraded to a Category 2.

‘‘It’s not surprising that the FAA wants to downgrade India. For the last four years, we have not been conforming to ICAO standards and the DGCA has not been functioning as a regulator. For instance, Indian carriers have done three wrong runway landings in the past one-and-a-half years. This could have been prevented had the DGCA carried out proper safety audits,’’ Capt. Ranganathan, an air safety consultant said.

Pangia recalled fatal accidents with runway landings in Tenerife (when a plane took off at the opposite end of the runway and run into another 747 on landing) and (US Airways taking off on the wrong and extremely short runway) in Lexington, Kentucky. He said in instances of wrong runway landings, pilot licenses are subject to suspension or revocation.

“Local aviation administration must be enforcing the regulations in India severely. However, if an American carrier violates rules of other countries, the FAA will have jurisdiction over the pilot and can enforce a sanction against the pilot via suspension, revocation or fines,” added Pangia.

Unfortunately, calls by eTN to Air India’s and Jet Airways’ offices in the US were not returned.