In an indictment of Air India Express, an audit conducted by the aviation regulator has found serious flaws in its air safety practices.
The report, a copy of which was reviewed by Mint, says the airline has failed to correct deficiencies pointed out by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) after Air India Express flight IX-812 crashed last year in Mangalore, killing 158 people—India’s worst air disaster in a decade.
Air India Express flies typically to the West Asia from southern Indian states. It is a subsidiary of Air India run under Air India Charters Ltd and operates 175 international flights and 15 domestic ones every week. The carrier ferried 2.5 million passengers in the year ended March.
This was the second audit of the airline by DGCA since the May crash, with its scope extended to engineering and other operational areas as well. The audit done in September found the airline to be in violation of norms for rest periods for pilots, training standards, record keeping, monitoring of safety incidents and corrective actions.
“A number of issues were found open and unsatisfactory,” the audit said, referring to the May findings, which typically are required to be closed in 90 days.
Air India declined comment. “The report of the DGCA audit has not been received yet,” a spokesman said.
A consumer body said it will take up the matter with civil aviation minister Vayalar Ravi.
“Air India Express is completely neglected, nobody is bothered about it. They are running an airline only for the sake of running it. They should run it keeping the safety and well-being of the passengers,” said Sudhakar Reddy, chief of Chennai-based Air Passengers Association of India.
An analyst said the DGCA audit was “a serious indictment” of the airline, the DGCA and the parent company Air India.
“The findings are so serious that the regulator should have taken action within 48 hours of such findings,” said Mohan Ranganathan, a Chennai-based safety expert. “They don’t have to wait for a fatal accident to happen before taking action.”
Ranganathan said by letting it go unchecked, DGCA was sending out a bad signal to the industry at large on air safety.
“In any other safety-conscious country, the airline would have been grounded immediately until corrective actions were taken,” he said, referring to Tiger Airways.
Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) in July had grounded budget airline Tiger’s domestic services following a series of incidents that had raised questions about its airworthiness. CASA has also asked the airline to improve the proficiency of its pilots, boost pilot training and checking procedures, address fatigue management issues and ensure that appropriately qualified people fill management and operational positions.
“We have already told the minister that DGCA is completely ill-equipped to handle the present (Air India Express) situation,” Reddy said. “Even if they carry out an audit, they don’t have the wherewithal to implement its findings. It’s a sad state of affairs.”
DGCA was not immediately available for comment.
Air India Express, for example, does not have a human resources department and needs to lean upon parent Air India for almost everything, even in situations that require quick decisions, resulting in operational handicaps.
“It was surprising to note that even (for) the photo copier (the airline) was dependent on Air India,” the report said, warning that the letters (exchanged between Air India and Air India Express) indicate “total interference in the working of Air India Charters, which is detrimental to the overall progress and directly infringes on air safety”.
The carrier does not have either a DGCA-approved chief of safety or deputy chief of safety.
While the parent Air India is IATA Operational Safety Audit certified, the international benchmark for safety amongst airlines, Air India Express remains without such an audit.
The airline seems to have purposely overlooked some deficiencies, the report said, sighting at least three instances where a pilot made grave errors, but was promoted to fly bigger aircraft instead of being penalized.
Air India Express, which has been incurring losses in the past two financial years, uses the smaller Boeing 737 aircraft for flying time of less than five hours, while bigger aircraft such as the Boeing 777 are used for longer flights to the US of as much as 16 hours. Pilots’ promotions are based from flying a smaller aircraft to a bigger one, depending on their competence and experience.
Another Air India Express pilot was found to have had a history of problems during landings. These were not addressed properly in training “and it (the pilot) subsequently landed into an incident with six bounces in a landing”.
“The (same) pilot has also been taken up for command on a Boeing 777 aircraft (in Air India),” the report added.
According to the DGCA report, safety analysis of various flights that could help prevent future incidents or accidents was not being undertaken. It is common practice for airlines to trawl flight data on a daily basis to detect any variations that would indicate pilot error.
“Statistical analysis of accident/incident need(s) to be done for improving safety standard. No such data could be produced during audit. Analysis of FDTL (flight and duty time limitations) exceedances record of cabin crew/cockpit crew was found not being done by the air safety department,” the audit report said. “There is no system for crew profiling for determining proper training after reported incident FOQA (flight operational quality assurance)/CVR (cockpit voice recorder) analysis.”
Since the airline was not making corrections on whatever mistakes were found with pilots, it was leading to a repeat of the same incidents by the same crew members.
“Sample check revealed the same crew had repeated incident record/FOQA exceedances record,” the report said.
The DGCA then goes on to note that in some instances pilots ignored censures. “On a number of occasions it was observed that the crew had not responded to mails sent on their observation in CVR monitoring,” it said. “Repeated reminders were also not being responded to.”
The budget airline was found to have insufficient pilots. For 21 aircraft, it had just 115 commanders and 80 first officers, yielding a crew to aircraft ratio of 1:5; the norm followed by other budget carriers is 1:6.5.
“There is an urgent need to recruit more pilots and improve the ratio for safe operations,” the report observed.
Even a year after it was first recommended, following the Mangalore crash, the company is yet to undertake referesher training for pilots. “Post the aircraft accident investigation in Mangalore, DGCA headquarters had issued a letter requiring a one-time proficiency check for all the crew,” the regulator said. “The same was not found complied with.”
Moreover, it was found that the flying hours violated the prescribed norms. “FDTL in flying time exceedances were greater than 30 hours in a week, in contravention to AIC 28 of 1992. No weekly offs in many cases were observed. Utilization of expat pilots was found to be very less compared with Indian counterparts,” the September audit noted. AIC stands for Aeronautical Information Circular.
An Air India Express official, who declined to be named, blamed Air India. “They don’t even share the details of pilot records with us,” he said, referring to the parent company.