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Blown Out Of Proportion

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Flying is not everyone's cup of tea. I know more than one person who is an uneasy flier, there are people who say a prayer before they board and after they disembark flights and even those who try and avoid flying whenever possible. This has always struck me as strange as statistics have shown that the accident rate for aviation is far, far lower than that of road accidents.

But for those who have the fear, it is very real. It is like having a fear of water. You can do your best to control it but it just creeps up on you without even knowing it. That's why the events in India's aviation sector over the last two weeks have been quite a shocker for many people and almost everyone I met has asked me whether it is "so unsafe" to fly in India as the newspapers and TV channels would have us believe.

Quite frankly, I don't think so at all. An industry insider explained things to me with a very simple analogy. He said that one can compare the safety of flight operations with that of your kitchen. If you leave your gas on and it leaks and fills the kitchen, that's an error which is totally unacceptable. It is a huge risk and you would do everything in your power to prevent it.

Then, one could leave the door of the microwave oven open and while that is against the rules of the kitchen, it's unlikely to create any real risks. And finally, one may simply leave the tap of the sink on and it amounts to nothing more than wastage.

Now, if one wants every aircraft to meet every safety requirement that has been laid down in all three categories of errors, he says, "no aircraft will ever fly". And while none of the rules in the first category can be broken (leaving the gas on!), it is a judgment call on which of the second and third categories can be ignored with no obvious risks to anyone.

According to him and some industry experts I spoke to, no engineer in India — just like in most other countries —will certify an aircraft "fit-to-fly" if he genuinely believes that there is a problem. It's not that under duress or for some small financial gain that he will allow the aircraft to fly. Yet there have been and are many instances when airlines do not obey or meet each and every criterion that is required to be met — it remains a judgement call whether what the airline is doing can eventually impinge on the safety of the carrier. Having said this, there are some things about this episode that cannot be ignored. One, if the regulator found some anomalies and was unhappy with certain practices with the operations of some airlines, it should  have issued notices to the airlines concerned rather than the carriers learning of it from leaked newspaper reports. This is certainly no way to tackle the matter, no matter what the transgression is and who did it.

Second, if the regulator feels — based on its own surveillance report — the situation is actually out of hand, then two things need explanation. One, what was the regulator doing all this while when the situation was spiraling out of control? If things were slowly slippping out of bounds, the DGCA officials are to be blamed since they are supposed to keep an eye on the airlines. And second, if he — the director general of DGCA — suddenly wakes up to the fact that things are uncontrollable then he needs to hold a national press conference to highlight the grave state of affairs and perhaps warn passengers to avoid flying certain airlines or even all airlines till pressing issues are resolved. In other words, he needs to press the alarm button and warn all concerned. Clearly, we did not reach this situation. Else, the DGCA would not be off to Kolkata on a flight himself while everyone here continued to speculate on whether one should board any flight at all and if so, which one.

I do not have a copy of the full report (just a four page document that is doing the rounds) and in fact, the document seems to be milder on the airlines which one thought were financially stretched (such as Kingfisher Airlines) or as some journalists described it — "it gives a clean chit" to some of the most stressed carriers while it took a harder line on the companies which are supposedly doing better.

A careful reading of findings on, say, Jet Airways makes me feel that it hardly speaks of the safety aspect at all. The report, for instance, notes that the "number of trainers is not in accordance with the DGCA requirements" or that the airline has "not recruited pilots to cater to the operational plan of 2011 (shouldn't this be 2012?)".  The whole episode smacks of poor handling from the side of the regulator, the aviation ministry and perhaps the media too.

anjulibhargava(at)gmail(dot)com

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 23-01-2012)