Saturday, May 29, 2010

Politicians, IAS cannot fly planes

Details of the Mangalore airport catastrophe make heart-rending reading. A split-second error – then horror. But one factor has received only passing attention, yet it is a central factor: In the civil aviation sector the south of India is grossly discriminated against. Equipment is inadequate, regulatory mechanisms virtually absent and services exploitative.

Not that local politicians can be absolved of responsibility. The present location in Mangalore was chosen because of the political pressure exerted by the local MP in the 1940-50s. The site technical experts preferred was a flat land nearer Udupi, two kilometers from the sea. Politicians discarded this and chose Bajpe where the runway area on top of the cliff plunges at the edges to valleys upto 300 feet below. Kozhikode also has a table-top, wirepulled by politicians and their land mafia cronies. In Bangalore itself Devanahalli was not the best choice available. It was very fertile land and a source of water for Bangalore. Whitefield or Bidadi would have made better sense. But political-real estate interests prevailed.

Once these sites were selected, the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) had its mandatory functions to perform. This is where lapses crept in. Among top priorities is a regulatory system that keeps an eye on safety-related problems. The DGCA’s South Zone has “no proper regulatory system in place”, as an unnamed senior official told Deccan Herald. He mentioned in particular “poor monitoring of airlines, improper and inadequate training, below-par aerodrome surveillance and lack of manpower” as the consequence of DGCA’s “stepmotherly treatment” of the South Zone’s air safety division.

Mangalore airport does not have a Precision Approach Radar, essential to alert the pilot if he is not properly aligned to the glide path. In 2006 the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s safety audit confirmed that the South Zone had lagged behind on air safety.

The neglect on the technical front is multiplied on the service front where the carrier comes in direct contact with the passengers. Air-India/Indian Airlines is a habitual offender in this area. Typical was the callous way in which they made relatives of the Mangalore crash victims wait at Dubai airport for more than a day before ferrying them to the accident site. This attitude of arrogance and disinterestedness routinely faced passengers from our West Coast to the Gulf and back. The bulk of these passengers are from the “working class”. Although they are a mainstay of the coastal community’s as well as the airline’s economy, our national carriers treat them as less than economy class.

There are also well-founded arguments that private airlines bribe government airlines (never the other way round) to make the latter’s aircraft and flight timings unattractive to passengers. Aircraft serving Mangalore-Kerala sectors from the Gulf usually has economy class capacity for 125 or less. These fly full. But aircraft serving Mumbai and Delhi have more than 150 economy seats and usually go from 30% to 40% empty. Our national carriers also have the most inconvenient departure and arrival timings which directly drive passengers into the waiting laps of Jet, Kingfisher and various Arab carriers.

This happens because AI-IA is run like a government department. Typical bureaucratic lack of accountability covers the airline from top to bottom. The minister’s daughter could simply pull her weight, cancel a scheduled passenger flight and divert it as a charter for the IPL where she was a paid employee. And what was the Minister’s response? “She is a little girl,” said Praful Patel. IAS managing directors have been equally irresponsible. One of them, after retirement, is said to have started a private recruitment company supplying foreign pilots to Indian airlines. He is not concerned with foreign pilots’ language problems with airtransport controllers, a major safety hazard. What concerns him is the profit he can make. Our national carriers will have no future unless they are saved from the clutches of politicians and bureaucrats.