DGCA is in a time warp, says Shakti Lumba
Feels growth of the aviation industry in India going forward will be restricted
Industry veteran SHAKTI LUMBA, 66, is not known for mincing his words. The former Indian airlines pilot who also headed Alliance Air (he spent 28 years with Indian airlines) for some time is a known fire-brand in the sector – a “man who always carried his resignation letter in his pocket”. After a long and controversial career with Indian Airlines and Alliance Air, Lumba worked with IndiGo for five years and was part of the start-up team for the airline.
In Lumba’s view, the growth of aviation in India going forward will be restricted by a severe shortage of senior pilots. He argues that the DGCA will be largely to blame for this as the organization is caught in a time warp and is more a controlling agency than one that ensures safety and facilitates the sector. He also wants the directorate for flight inspection disbanded. Excerpts from a no-holds barred chat with Anjuli Bhargava. Edited excerpts:
In India, the story is of growth. Besides having more passengers, it also means having more skilled manpower. Airlines in India end up doing in-house training for almost all kinds of skilled personnel they require. There is no institute in India providing all the kinds of skilled manpower. My question is where are you going to get the manpower?
When you announced a new aviation policy, has anyone looked at what kind of manpower is needed to support this policy and what are the changes we require in regulation so that this policy moves smoothly.
DGCA needs total upgrading. It still doesn’t have a twitter account. Emails are on their personal account. Most of its work is still done on paper. Instead of being a safety regulator or facilitator, it is a controlling agency and a pretty stupid one at that.
Why do you say that?
There are very limited training facilities in India. The moment you point that out to them, they say there are 5000 pilots unemployed. But they don’t realize that these are CPL holders. They have to become first officers and then captains. The fact that everyone is poaching from each other and airlines are now demanding a one-year notice period shows you how acute the shortage already is. The notice period used to be one month, then three months, then six months and now they want one year. Does that tell you anything ?
The training requirements are bizarre in India. Let me cite two examples. To do training either you use flying pilots or you use people like me – retired pilots with a lot of experience. The DGCA has such complex rules that this is impossible.
Recently a Boeing trained instructor who is training Air India pilots on B-777 under the Boeing programme in Singapore wanted to come and train here. Some people wanted him to come here with a 777 simulator and train the pilots here instead.
But DGCA did not approve him because the training institute he is from is not DGCA approved. So now he is training the same Indian pilots at double the cost in Singapore. What sense does this make? DGCA is not in a position to assess and approve all training schools all over the place. They can barely manage stuff here in India. They don’t have that kind of manpower or skilled personnel.
A second instance. There’s a colleague of mine who left Indian airlines (he flew A320 extensively) and worked for Qatar airways. Now he wanted to come and train pilots here but DGCA says you cannot train pilots on A320 because you haven’t flown it for so long. He argued that it is mixed fleet flying – he’s been flying A330, A340. – it’s one family of aeroplanes. He retired one year ago and has 20,000 hours of experience on Airbus aircraft. But, no.
They say you have to go back, do a complete conversion course (as if you were coming new on the A320 a full type rating). In short, the training requirements for retired pilots – who will train the junior pilots – are more stringent than it is for the pilots who are going to fly the aeroplane!
But can’t this message get across to them?
There were two crashes in the past based on which it was pointed out that DGCA doesn’t have a flight inspection directorate. Now, government by and large doesn’t take the cognizance of major courts of inquiry if it doesn’t suit them. They never have and they never will.
Anyway, they accepted a few recommendations and I was roped in to set up the directorate. I wrote the initial documents in 1991. The premise was that no one in DGCA had any knowledge or experience in flying. There had to be a department that could put forth the pilot requirements and limitations.
That’s how it worked till around early 2000. Then, this directorate started taking control and instead of being a facilitator of pilots, it became a controller of pilots. Now the directorate exerts control on every aspect of a pilots training and flying career. They are like a “super director of operations” for pilots of all airlines. They interfere in every airline.
And even though I was involved in its setting up, to my mind, civil aviation would be well served if the flight inspection directorate in its present form was disbanded. They were supposed to do oversight and severance. But instead they are controlling every aspect of a pilot’s life.
And there is the corruption. You have a choice. Get your papers out in 24 hours or wait three weeks. Due to a lack of skills, papers are held up in DGCA for weeks because the “person who knows how to do it is on leave”. Is this how things ought to work? Skill upgrade of DGCA is critical.
If DGCA is not enough, there’s another body to contend with : the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security. There are two catchwords in aviation today. Security and safety. You say anything…no, no, no, it’s a safety issue; we can’t do anything. You say something else…no, no, no, it’s a security issue; we can’t do anything. The long and short of it – between security and safety – is that nothing can be done or changed.
People have been flying for years on the basis of a police clearance and an airport entry pass (which expires every three years) and there was no disruption of services. Then they came out with a convoluted thing – that your police clearance must be from your place of residence. Now if a pilot is sitting in Delhi but is from Timbuktoo, the papers will have to come from there. The guy in the police station sitting in Timbuktoo is in no hurry to give the clearance.
Now, what is this clearance? It is simply to ensure you are not on any list – the narcotics, criminal, are you wanted for something? If you aren’t, you are cleared. So at any point, you have a certain number of pilots sitting on the ground because his AOP has expired and the papers haven’t come.
What about foreign pilots?
But all over the world, if a pilot goes to another country to fly they fly on that country’s license (so if an Indian pilot goes to Qatar, he flies on a Qatari license). But here he flies on his own parent country’s license but he gets a temporary authorization to fly here.
Now there are two things. Not only does he have to comply with all our regulations, he also has to comply with all his. Twice a year he has to be sent back to his parent country to do that compliance. Time lost; costs up.
Now, before a pilot comes in, I have to send 5 copies of all his documents to DGCA. He keeps one and sends the others to home ministry, enforcement, narcotics and wherever. They say outer limit 60 days. Now 60 days, you wait you can’t bring him in.
Now say security clearance has come from home ministry. Now he’s here in India and I am paying him. Now he applies for his FATA and takes a test. Then result is declared and he has his FATA license. But only after that will BCAS go through his security clearance – they will do their own. They will not take the clearance given by the home ministry already. Why you may ask? Because they are two different desks in the home ministry handling this ! Can you believe it?
I personally know of one foreign pilot who was here for one full year on full salary and he did not fly a single hour because he was just caught in this whole rigamorale. If he hasn’t flown, his FATA expires so he has to re-do that. If at any time he has to leave and go home for any compliance requirements and he is away from India for 90 days, he must again do his FATA. Or he may have to redo his airport clearances. What I am saying is that regulations and requirements often fail to make sense and instead of ensuring no disruption in services are designed such that they disrupt services all the time. Chances are you will just lose the foreign pilot to China or some other country. This is why I think the biggest impediment to growth will be a lack of pilots.
You have a crunch of pilots, you get all your regulations in line. One nodal ministry but different arms flying their own kites. Why can’t it all be streamlined? Because it is still total inspector raj. The DGCA has remained caught in a time warp.