Indian Civilian Aviation: Handling Mid-Air turbulence
DECCAN CHRONICLE | Santosh Mehra
Civil Aviation is a different ball game. It is in the very nature of the beast. Glamorous but remorseless. Fascinating but unforgiving. Will take you to the skies one day. But, dump you in the pits the very next. Always in the headlines. Mostly, for the wrong reasons.
Consider the following:
In the public memory, the closures most remembered are Kingfisher Airlines, Jet Airways and now Go First, though more than four lakh companies, including big companies like Bhushan Steel, Lanco Infra and over some 250 startups including celebrity ones lile EBAY, Stayzilla have folded up.
One isolated case of a drunken male relieving himself on a lady in Executive class of an Air India flight, becomes Prime time TV news and hogs more national headlines than the really heinous 31000 rapes and 85000 cases of outrage of women’s modesty that occur annually in India (NCRB 2021 ),
While a few hours delays in train and bus travels are routine, a little increase in waiting time on T3 terminal, New Delhi generates such adverse publicity that it compels visits by Civil Aviation Minister and his entourage of officials.
The Q arises: How do you deal with this bewitching and highly demanding damsel?
First, a peek into the recent meteoric growth and future of Civil Aviation sector:
Ranked seventh currently, India has the potential to be among the global top three nations in terms of domestic and international passenger traffic .Spurred by the National Civil Aviation Policy 2016 (NCAP), the CA industry is seeing unprecedented growth. It has twin objectives of enhancing affordability / connectivity for the masses andof boosting economy and employment. This is reflected in the following:
1. Passenger Traffic: From a modest 79 mn domestic passengers in 2010 to 158 mn in 2017, this number is expected to reach 520 mn by 2030. Thus, Passenger traffic will increase at a rate of 6.2% annually by 2040, the highest rate among the major nations and far higher than the world average of 3.9%. Under the Regional Connectivity Scheme or UDAN (‘UdeDeshkaAamNagrik’) , a vital component of NCAP 2016, more than 2.15 lakh UDAN flights haveflown over 1.1 crore passengers till 30th November 2022.
2. Airports: Increase in airport infrastructure is imperative to meet the growing demand for air travel in India. In last 8 years, the number of airports has gone up from 74 to 145 (including 29 international, 95 domestic, 10 custom airports, and a few helipads and waterdromes) and this number is likely to cross 200 in next 4-5 years and go up to 425 by 2040. The Government has set a target to operationalize 1,000 UDAN routes and to revive/develop 100 unserved & underserved airports/heliports/water aerodromes (including 68 aerodromes) by 2025.
3. Aero plane Fleet& Staff: From a modest 700 planes now and 12000 active pilots, the nation’s airplane fleet is projected to quadruple in size to approximately 2500 airplanes by 2040 with the requirement of pilots and technicians/ground support staff going upto 35000, and 45,000 respectively.
4. Krishi UDAN 2.0.:For enhanced value realization through better integration and optimization of Agri-harvesting and air transportation .the number of airports actively participating in Krishi Udan has increased to 58.
The Civil Aviation industry is thus, undergoing a major transformation. What was once considered elitist, exclusivist and sole preserve of the rich and the powerful, it is now democratized beyond belief. Hawai chappal se hawai jahaaj tak is becoming a distinct reality in India and is ushering in a paradigm shift in civil aviation. However, this is one industry, which, unlike any other, relentlessly and incessantly demands the highest standards of performance, on all parameters. Even six sigma standards may be subpar in civil aviation, particularly with respect to safety and security. The moot question is whether in terms of infrastructure, technology, systems and procedures and most importantly, trained manpower of various hues, is the country prepared for this massive leap of faith? The paper will highlight and analyze some of the major issues:
1.Aviation Security: Aviation Security is essentially the responsibility of BCAS and CISF. While BCAS lays down the broad policies and guidelines, the heavy duty task of implementation rests essentially with CISF. With limited manpower resources, it is increasingly becoming very difficult for CISF, to cope with the proliferation of airports and massive increase in passenger traffic. The Aviation Security units, created in a few states, can best be described as ‘Works in Progress’. They are plagued with usual police maladies like shortage of manpower, poor and indifferent leadership, lack of adequate technical equipment, unattractive pay scales and promotional avenues, compared to their local police counterparts. Many of them do not have any women security component at all, and somehow ‘manage’ by drawing civil women police on rotational basis, which is a risky proposition.
Lack of adequately trained manpower is not only a serious security hazard but also increases waiting period for passengers at the airports. The most obvious personal cost of terrorism to most business people and other professionals is the extra time it takes to get through airport security. Studies done in US indicate that if all 600 million annual air travelers in the U.S. were to face an additional hour’s delay, and time is valued at $20 an hour, it comes to$12 billion per year, or 0.1 percent of GDP of US.Time means money.
Unfortunately, in the euphoria of fast growth of this sector, the National security perspective is increasingly becoming foggy. It is absolutely and equally vital for both Govt mandarins and private players to understand that Aviation Security is one parameter on which even the slightest lapse can cause a serious setback on all frontiers, including economy, employment and most importantly, national security. One instance of plane hijack and the entire edifice, assiduously built over decades, can collapse, like a pack of cards. Two examples given below will prove the point, beyond doubt:
- The 9/11 attacks in USA resulted in loss of 3060 human lives, immediate & direct loss of $36 Bn to US economy, over 4.25 lakh job loss in New York alone and an immediate decline of 40% in tourism, hospitality and aviation sectors. The Insurance claims payout were 1.5 times of ‘Hurricane Andrew" which had seen the highest ever payout in natural calamities in USA.
- The hijack of IA Flight 814 in Dec 1999: This IA flight from Kathmandu landed at Amritsar, but was allowed to take off dueto perhaps, absence of timely action and errors in judgment. It eventually landed at Kandahar, Afghanistan, then under Taliban rule, where 154 passengers and crew were held hostage for eight days. The sordid saga ended with the release of hardcore terrorists Masood Azhar, Omar Sheikh and Mushtaq Ahmad Zargar. Ahmed Omar Sheikh, a British Pakistani terrorist of Jaish-e-Mohammed, was involved in killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
On his release, Masood Azhar regrouped his terror organisation, Jaish-e-Mohammed. Listed as an international terrorist by the UN Security Council, he launched a series of deadly attacks, including on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks and the Pathankot airbase attack in January 2016 and most recently, VBIED suicide bomber attack on a CRPF convoy in 2019 in Pulwama killing 44 personnel.
India is still picking up the pieces of that plane hijack, despite lapse of two decades. Hence, even one instance of plane hijack can have serious consequences on national security and economy. Given the above scenario, some urgent measures are required which are enumerated as follows:
- It is time that India has a National Civil Aviation Security Policy, to be prepared by a Consultative Committee. It should have experts from BCAS, CISF, state Aviation Security Forces and also, representatives of private players in Aviation. It should draw the blue print for ST,MT and LT requirements of Aviation Security in India, duly incorporating best global practices, manpower forecasting , identification & outsourcing of non-core duties, technology adoption etc. It should explore having a foreign component of CISF, on the lines of ONGC Videsh, in keeping with the PM’s vision of increasing India’s global footprints.
- To meet the increasing demand for trained and specialized manpower for the envisaged exponential increase in airports, number of aircrafts and passengers in India, a dedicated National Aviation Security Force on the lines of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) of USA should be established, with its primary focus on airport security and anti-hijacking measures. This is because CISF was essentially raised for and still, bulk of its strength (over 80%), is committed to industrial security.Till such time, CISF, perhaps, can be rechristened as Central Industrial & Aviation Security Force, to highlight its crucial role in aviation security.
- Simultaneously, the GoI has to do much handholding for filling up the shortages and for capacity building in the states. For one, 10-20 percent of Agniveers, who are completing their tenure, can be earmarked for State Aviation Security Forces. These Agniveers are well trained soldiers and with a say, month long "bridging course’ can be readily deployed at the airports. Apart from giving assured employment, to some Agniveers, this will obviate the need for states to hold separate time consuming and costly recruitment drives.
- For formal Induction/ Basic and Refresher Courses for the state police personnel, the GoI can consider establishing five Regional Aviation Security Academies, as, despite repeated exhortations to the states during the annual Conference of DGPs,very few states like MP and Karnataka, are having their own set ups. To begin with, the existing five CDTIs/CAPT, under BPR&D, can be tasked with capacity building in Aviation Security, in their respective regions.
- More teeth to BCAS: The directives of BCAS need stricter implementation. No RCS airport should be allowed to operate flights, unless all criteria are met and certification carried out.
- Leveraging Private Sector: Many private sector players, like GMR, have acquired considerable expertise in Aviation security. Wherever and whenever possible, the expertise of private companies, in capacity building, should be utilized.
2. Safety: The paramount importance of Aviation safety hardly needs any reiteration. Jaan hai to Jahaan hai. The recent failure of GoFirst Airlines can be possibly traced to the grounding of its A320 Neo aircrafts, by DGCA, on safety criteria, in the wake of repeated mechanical troubles in their Pratt & Whitney engines.
3. Acquisition, Maintenance and OpeartionalCosts of Aircraft Fleet: Due to limited funds, Indian companies mostly lease aircrafts, instead of outright purchases. Rise in dollar rates increases the economic burden on these companies, which makes their operations unsustainable. Furthermore, high taxes on ATF compound their misery. The MRO business of Indian carriers is around Rs 5000 crore, 90% of which is currently spent outside India – in Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, UAE etc.
Again, due to lack of adequate domestic MRO (Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul) infrastructure, Indian companies have been dependent on foreign companies, resulting in drain of precious US dollars
Hence, there is a need for the GoI to review the entire gamut of issues related to civil aviation. This includes creating a supporting ecosystem for foreign lease companies to set up offices in India, enabling the local MRO companies, rationalization of taxes on ATF etc. The 2020 reduction of GST for MRO services from 18% to 5% and abolition of GTO is a healthy step.
4. Encouraging Private Sector Participation: Globally, Aviation industry is highly competitive and requires deep pockets and domain expertise, which only private sector can bring in. Despite this realization, private sector continues to be treated as Aangan ki tulsi.
To fulfill its ambitious vision, the GoI plans to invest $1.83 bn in the development of airport infrastructure by 2026. To overcome financial constraints, the number of PPP airports is seeing a fivefold increase to 24 by 2025. AAI is forming joint ventures and has recently awarded six airports — Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Lucknow, Guwahati, Thiruvananthapuram, Mangalore — for operations, management and development under PPP for a period of 50 years. As per National Monetization Pipeline (NMP), 25 AAI airports have been earmarked for asset monetization between 2022 and 2025.However, much more needs to be done.
With an Output Multiplier of 3.25 and Employment Multiplier of 6.1, Civil Aviation sector has immense potential. Hence, it is high time that the Govt. leverages private sector, not just for its financial heft, but also for entire gamut of issues, including policy making, security and safety, capacity building, infrastructure development etc.
What is required is not just ‘Whole of the Govt.’, but ‘Whole of the Nation’ approach, which means collective and coordinated efforts of the GoI, the state Govts, the CPSUs, and last, but not the least, the private sector.