If you are a nervous flier but have no choice but to fly here and there for work and other obligations, the last few months in the Indian skies would have been harrowing. Most of 2022 has been beset with incidents in the air that have been spooking fliers, certainly worse for those who are on board one of these troubled flights but also for anyone keeping a close track. So a pretty valid question many are asking: are the Indian skies getting safer or more unsafe as the industry limps back to normal post the pandemic.

The industry’s report card on this front certainly has many red marks but government officials dismiss the worries as baseless, terming incidents as minor. But repeated incidents are ringing alarm bells since fliers are human and fallible. 

Recently, one of the more frightening incidents was when smoke was detected in a SpiceJet flight cabin on October 12 and the aircraft made an emergency landing in Hyderabad. Panic had set in the aircraft and the crew did not help matters by suggesting that passengers begin to pray. Post the incident, DGCA called for a series of measures including a temporary ban on the Singapore headquartered MRO that serviced this particular aircraft--crackdown by the safety regulator.

In general, faced with a spate of minor and some seemingly serious incidents, DGCA has tightened oversight and surveillance in 2022. Ramp inspections of aircraft have been increased. Since May 2022, 533 spot checks have been conducted. Special audits of the airlines have been carried out over July-August. One-off authorisations for aviation medical examiners, a common practice in the past, have been stopped. Airline specific action like curtailing the proposed schedule has been taken in certain cases. In general, it would be fair to say that the authorities have sprung into action, albeit in their usual knee jerk manner.

An industry that is beset with disgruntled employees across airlines, however, maintains that we in India are building up towards a major accident. Whether this is rumor mongering or has any genuine basis, it is hard to assess for almost anybody. The act of flying and reaching one’s destination is always a bit like a complex ballet performance where many performers need to act in flawless tandem, synchronised and in reasonably perfect harmony. Making it complex is the fact that a significant portion of this performance is not in human control: the aircraft is a machine with all its incumbent hazards.

Adding to this uncertainty is the utter and complete lack of confidence India’s safety regulator has suffered from since it was formed. This is not a reflection on the person or incumbent at the helm of affairs, but years of lackadaisical handling and poor judgment on the part of the political bigwigs in charge. No matter which government or which party has been in charge, the DGCA office has functioned like a typical bureaucratic government office, marred by endless and pointless paperwork, incompetence, allegations of cronyism and corruption and sheer ignorance. India’s undying love for “status quo” remains a huge problem to contend with. To be at all effective, DGCA needs to be an independent body, free from ministry of civil aviation (MOCA), a matter mulled over many times and rejected as status quo wins.

In the last few months, this government has tried to strengthen the aviation regulator as it thinks and knows best. 416 new posts have been created for an organisation that has traditionally been short staffed. Four new sub regional offices have been added in Dehradun, Jaipur, Nagpur and Agartala. Sub regional offices have been upgraded and converted into regional offices. A new regional office has been created in Ahmedabad. 

But a cynical aviation industry remains highly skeptical and here’s why. One, in the past too similar actions have been taken in the face of emergency and crisis situations or post a serious accident but often they remain proposals on paper or at best a tick-the-box exercise. On the ground, very little changes. Second, the recent overhaul of the safety regulator is being touted as “more of the same”. Some fear that this will only end up compounding the existing problems. More posts = more incompetent officers = more pointless rules and paperwork = more petty corruption. Many experts in the past have suggested abolishing the existing regulator and starting from scratch but nobody is certain that this drastic step would solve the inherent gaps either. Speak to enough people vested in the industry and you will be convinced that setting up a credible regulatory body in this space is beyond us as a nation. 

Two, just like the performance of a batch of students is inextricably linked to the quality of teaching being imparted, the oversight and surveillance of aircraft and equipment will only be as good as the examiners and engineers who carry it out. The quality of inspectors and those in charge of keeping an eye on matters like safety remains under a cloud. Ask any commander or trainer of the numerous who have joined India’s commercial aviation space from the Indian Air Force (IAF) and you’ll be in for a sleepless night. Matters are made worse by airline management pilots who are in cahoots with the government authorities. Too many “yes men” spoil the broth.

And last but not least, matters on safety are made worse by the lack of coordination and clear thinking on the part of not just DGCA but also the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS), which functions in an equally haphazard manner. Between the two, there’s a deadly cocktail brewing, aviation observers argue.

So in the final analysis, we find ourselves in a situation where no matter what action the executive takes, the trust deficit deepens. Given the Indian antipathy towards real reform and change, one cannot help but begin to comprehend this nation’s thriving and burgeoning religiosity. As the SpiceJet crew advised its passengers on October 12: when in trouble, pray.

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