AI, Jet expansion plans hit after US safety downgrade

The American Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Friday decided to downgrade all airline operators originating from India for inadequate safety procedures. The issue was hanging fire since September 2013 when FAA had pointed out 31 discrepancies in safety measures adopted by Indian regulator — Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA).

The timing of FAA’s decision, however, gives rise to speculation about it being a move taken in retaliation to a series of steps by the Indian government against the US embassy following the diplomatic row involving Devyani Khobragade.

FAA has put India into category II countries for aviation safety, bringing it on a par with underdeveloped nations, including Bangladesh and Indonesia. The ministry of civil aviation called it an unfair move and said FAA did not give India a proper hearing.

The downgrading means Jet and Air India, the two airlines that fly to the US, will not be able to add more flights to their US fleet. It will not just affect the expansion plan of these airlines into the US, but will jeopardise expansion plan of other Indian airlines.

FAA audits are based on the International Civil Aviation Organisation safety standards. The agency had audited the safety standards followed by DGCA. FAA in September pointed out 31 findings in the flight security processes followed by DGCA. “Of these, 24 were already addressed by December. Of the remaining seven, five had been completed; action needs to be taken on only two irregularities,” civil aviation minister Ajit Singh.

DGCA does not have its fleet of Flight Operation Inspector (FOI). But 75 posts for FOI have been created for which advertisements were issued earlier this month. “We have to follow the due process to these seats. That will happen in due course,” said DGCA director general Prabhat Kumar.

Air India, which is expected to join hands with Star Alliance this year, could be badly hit by FAA’s move. The downgrading will also have a cascading effect with safety regulators in EU (EASA), Singapore (CAAS), Japan (CAB) and UAE (GCAA). Jet’s plans to go global through the Abu Dhabi hub may also suffer. Indigo and SpiceJet may not be able to expand services globally. Start-up airlines like Tata-SIA and AirAsia may not be able to fly international. “This will impact airports, air cargo, tourism and hotel industry as well. All in all, a black day in India’s aviation history. Corrective measures need to be taken on a war footing”, said Amber Dubey, partner and head – aerospace and defense, at global consultancy KPMG.

Sources in the aviation ministry said India, which was apprehensive about the impending downgrade by FAA, had in November through diplomatic channels hinted at retaliation against aviation companies from the US, especially Boeing Dreamliner 787. It is learnt that the US counterparts were told: “We will be raising the pitch against the shortcomings of Dreamliner aircraft.”