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India’s FAA safety upgrade pushed to April as DGCA struggles to fill FOI posts

In a dampener for India’s aviation industry, the country may have to wait a bit longer for an upgrade of its air safety rating by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Business Standard has learnt from official sources. The main reason is that the aviation regulator Directorate-General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has been able to appoint only about 45 Flight Operations Inspectors (FOIs), despite the Union Cabinet approving appointments of 75 FOIs at market-linked salaries more than a year back.

Civil aviation ministry officials now expect an upgrade only around April, marking the second delay in the deadline since January this year. However, this is subject to a satisfactory visit by an FAA team in end-March. After a visit by an FAA team in December last year, the ministry said it was confident of an upgrade by January during US President Barack Obama’s visit, later revising this target to March.

“Right now US consultant The Wicks Group is working hard with the DGCA team to complete all formalities before the FA team visit next month. When the FAA team had paid a visit in December last year, it had found two deficiencies. Inadequate number of FOIs was the main problem,” a ministry official said.

Incidentally, DGCA has also sped up the appointment process for new FOIs by publishing several job vacancy advertisements on its website this month offering up to 24 positions. The first vacancy circular published on February 3 offers up to 21 posts for a three-year initial term. A second circular dated February 10 offers three more positions as consultants for a year.

“Our target is to have one FOI for every 10 aircraft in the country, hence the calculation of 75 posts. However, we are facing problems in hiring both because of a lack of applicants with the right experience, and also because many applicants are not able to leave their jobs early enough,” a DGCA official said.

The whole problem of the downgrade first began in September 2013 after an FAA audit of the DGCA, conducted under the US agency’s International Aviation Safety Assessment programme, raised 31 areas of concern. FAA then declared that India is not in compliance with the international standards as codified under the Chicago Convention.

By January 2014, the FAA said that the Indian government and DGCA have resolved all but two of the negative findings, forcing the agency to relegate India’s air safety rating to Category 2 status. Apart from hurting business sentiments, the downgrade largely meant that Indian carriers like Air India and Jet Airways cannot add any new US flights, while existing flights may face random FAA checks on US soil.

FAA’s main issue was hiring “adequate” FOIs on market-competitive salaries and not on deputation from the airlines – it said that hiring FOIs temporarily from airlines led to a clear conflict of interest and thus inadequate safety oversight by the DGCA.

On the advice of the FAA, the DGCA also enlisted the services of private consultant The Wicks Group PLLC in June 2014 to help them prepare for a fresh FAA safety review and identify areas of potential concern. Apart from hiring FOIs, DGCA has made several other changes in the process of giving Air Operators Permits (AOP) to airlines. This had led to delays in the AOP process for Tata-SIA’s Vistara, while other players like Air India and Jet have had to go through a complete re-certification process in November-December last year.

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