The Indian Aircraft Act 1934 was enacted “to make better provisions for control of the manufacture, possession, use, operation, sale, import and export of aircraft”. It is clearly the Magna Carta for all aviation ops, whose primary focus should be passenger flight safety. The makers of the Indian Constitution had incorporated “aviation” in Schedule Seven, in the Union List, whose item 29 is “airways; aircraft and air navigation … aerodromes”, entrusting the responsibility of regulating aviation to the Central government.
This makes it clear that every airline or aircraft operator, whether state-owned or private, must be subject to the government’s control. Aviation being a capital, labour, fuel, technology-intensive and high-risk sector, passengers’ lives and flight safety can never be left exclusively in the hands of profit-seeking businessmen -- whether they run airlines or airport operations. Thus, while ensuring flight safety, from take-off to touch-down, remains the job of those who run airlines, the government of the day, of whatever party or political complexion, cannot avoid its liability and responsibility.
Understandably, major flight safety failures of the past must be remembered and analysed to ensure that they don’t recur. Thus, on December 17, 2003, at the Aeronautical Society of India’s century celebration of aviation in Bengaluru, this writer, as one of three keynote speakers, emphasised that the foremost mission of aviation, both civil and military, stands on “flight safety”, and that can never be compromised, no matter what the financial cost.
Therefore, two recent civil aviation-related news items drew one’s attention. First, the submission by the pilots’ unions of now privately-run Air India which alleged that “working conditions are hostile at the airline” as the “pilots are intimidated to accept flights with total disregard to Air India’s flight-duty-time-limitation (FDTL) due to pilot shortage”. True or untrue, FDTL is a flight safety matter. It’s because no pilot can operate (or rather, must not be allowed to operate) beyond the mandatorily stipulated flying hours per-day. Flying isn’t like driving a car or riding a bicycle where the driver or rider can take a break any time if he or she’s tired. Aviation is a challenging profession where several hundred lives depend on two expert pilots on each and every flight. Thus, without a minimum period of rest, where pilots and flight crews can get refreshed, things can end tragically as there’s no dearth of accidents due to flight safety failures in the Indian sky.
Contextually, therefore, a few major air disasters of the past must be remembered. May 31, 1973 Indian Airlines 440 Boeing 737 crashed on approach to Delhi runway 28-10; January 1, 1978 Air India 855 Boeing 747 plunged into the Arabian Sea within 90 seconds after take-off from Mumbai runway 27-09; October 19, 1988 Indian Airlines 113 Boeing 737 crashed on the final approach of Ahmadabad runway 23; February 14, 1990 Indian Airlines 605 Airbus 320 made a short-landing, at the old Bangalore runway 09; August 16, 1991 Indian Airlines 257 Boeing 737 hit the hills outside Imphal airport during descent. Indeed, the saddest was when one of the most respected and dynamic civil aviation ministers of India, the late Madhavrao Scindia, resigned on his own
after gross flight safety failures over an avoidable pilot error of Indian Airlines wet-leased Uzbek Airlines aircraft on a zero-visibility foggy Saturday morning, January 9, 1993, on Delhi runway 28-10. The conscientious minister couldn’t take the flight safety failures of others, and quit on moral grounds, and strangely enough, died in a plane crash on September 30, 2001.
Since flight accidents can only be of two types -- avoidable or unavoidable, advance flight safety planning constitutes the core
competence of every carrier. Thus, the civil aviation ministry and the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) must be prepared for all eventualities as they are empowered to strictly implement aviation law.
This brings us to Air India’s mega aircraft order worth over $100 billion. While this is an excellent news for India, there’s a curious twist: a number of Boeing-737-MAX going to Air India were previously earmarked for Chinese airlines, where Boeing still awaits re-certification owing to two avoidable fatal crashes: Indonesia’s Lion Air (2018) and Ethiopian Airlines (2019). Bloomberg also noted in a October 2022 report: “Boeing is trying to offload some roughly 140 aircraft it is currently not allowed to deliver”. One only hopes that due diligence has been done in matters regarding the safety of the carrier’s new aircraft, under the watchful eyes of the ministry and the DGCA.
It’s true that the 106-year-old Boeing has an incredible record of quality products, yet in the last three years there has been a severe erosion of the plane-maker’s credibility and reputation due to two avoidable crashes of its fastest selling 737-MAX. The Financial Times reported on September 16, 2020: “Sweeping failures by Boeing engineers, deception by company and significant errors in government oversight led to two fatal 737-MAX crashes, US congressional investigators concluded in a 245-page report.” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, under Chairman Peter DeFazio, found it “mind-boggling” that “Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration concluded that the plane’s design had complied with regulations in spite of crashes”.
Now, in December 2022, the same US Congress which had given a scathing 2020 report on the Boeing-737-MAX flighty safety mechanism, however, gave Boeing a last-minute reprieve on 737-MAX, moving away from its earlier stand on flight safety, for which it passed the Aircraft Certification Safety and Accountability Act 2020, which required all planes, certified by the FAA after December 27, 2022, to have updated crew-alerting systems that conformed to the latest safety standards. Clearly, Boeing’s intense lobbying for months convinced US legislators.
What appeared to have worked on the US legislators were job losses, reputation, credibility, market and filling of the vacuum by Boeing’s key rival Airbus and the advent of China’s COMAC-made narrow-body passenger jet C-919, which poses a challenge to both Europe and the United States.
This is why aircraft orders can’t be left solely to Air India. The DGCA and the civil aviation ministry must step in to examine the issue threadbare as both aviation law and the Constitution requires the Central government to oversee all fight safety matters, which should be the key factor.
Post-Script: The “Pee-gate” matter involving Air India’s Flight AI-102 wasn’t just scandalous, but a potential flight safety hazard too. The DGCA and the government must come down hard on the private carrier to focus more on flight safety issue than simply trying to monopolise and maximise profits. An airline founded by the legendary aviator J.R.D. Tata can certainly do better for its image, credibility and reputation.