Wednesday, March 30, 2011

. The pigsty that is civil aviation in India (Part II)

The next time you take a flight, demand photocopies of licences, insurances, minimum equipment list and airworthiness documents to satisfy yourself that it’s safe to fly. Else, just walk off the aircraft. It’s the only weapon air travelers have to make a reasoned argument about deficiencies in airlines. And we have a responsibility to try and clean this mess

It is not amazing anymore what a weekend with some cricket can do to divert attention from real issues in India. Be it corruption scams, energy crisis, water shortage, or the latest on pilots with fake licences generated through methods used by much-maligned auto-rickshaw drivers. Actually, at least the
auto-rickshaw drivers are often honest about things, and now and then seem to also be part of attempts to improve or fix the system-as many of us would have observed by the slogans and couplets painted on their vehicles.

Have we ever seen any such attempts on airplanes? No way. Fancy in-flight magazines aside, nothing. The idea is-don't make noise. Mainstream media will not make a noise-airlines are among their largest advertisers, and besides, all those free seats and upgrades mean a lot too. Airline employee unions will not make noise-too many of their friends and family members want to be pilots, I guess,by any means possible. Airlines themselves will not make a noise-the idea is to simply remain technically "airworthy" and the insurance companies will look after the rest, and as for reputation, a new colour scheme as well as "re-branding" is good for everybody if an incident should occur.

And aircraft manufacturers, will they make a noise about their planes being flown by auto-rickshaw driver incarnates? No way! They have to-right you are-sell more planes. As simple as that. That the airline manufacturers, Boeing and Airbus, have been concerned about the issue of fake and even sub-standard pilots in and around India, has been open knowledge for some time now.

So now, time for airlines, manufacturers and their employees to go in for "noise abatement procedures", a process which we know airlines are good at. Meanwhile, a few junior to mid-level officials of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) will apparently carry the can; some more sacrifices shall be made to the Gods of Lucre, and life will go on. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) will be prevailed upon not to place India on their blacklist (again), as India packs a punch there, and the "flying schools" will re-invent themselves.

And the head of the DGCA has the nerve to call this an "aberration". That's really, really, rich. Noisily rich.

The "noise" in Delhi this weekend has been all about the Mohali cricket match. And the attention has all been towards a summit on "luxury", which for those who go deeper into these things, is a desperate attempt by the purveyors of expensive beads and baubles to try and desperately recover from the sudden drop in sales in Japan and China-one due to the tsunami and the other due to a change in spending patterns. Cricket is cricket, in India, so that's something else. But on "luxury", an 80% discount at the Hugo Boss showroom close to where I live says it all-luxury is aspirational in India, but we want it at 80% discount.

On the other hand, the "non-noise" silence and ostrich-head-in-the-sand approach being taken by pilots as well as airlines in India, is not only deafening, it is positively criminal. Commercial pilots and their multiple associations and unions, who have in the past not hesitated from going in for labour action for minor and silly reasons and manipulated the media brilliantly, have simply not even bothered to comment or come before the media so far. Barring a few sad looking young pilots, bleating plaintively as they are escorted away to spend quality time with pickpockets and whores, complaining that they spent so much money and now deserve sympathy-nothing.

As for the airlines, it seems as if they are treating this issue as nothing more than a bad smell which may soon pass away like a whiff of smoke, so that they can go back to their business. Barring the suspension or sacking of a few pilots, the rest has been one rapid cover-up operation-business as usual, and resolve as quickly the minor issues of passengers suddenly looking into the cockpit to see what the pilot really looks like. After all, they know the truth. It is not just the young recently employed pilots who were working on fake licences. Look around, check out some of the older and senior pilots, do a double-check on the engineers and figure out. Better to close ranks and not make waves-or clear air turbulence, in this case.

Not that there aren't good and qualified people in the aviation industry in India. Sure there are. But the truth be simply told, they were and are aware of what is going on, and have all been in some way or
the other, compromised. The rot is so deep that anybody who speaks or breathes against it internally is going to suffer.

However, in all this, the one major stakeholder who has been royally ignored is the air passenger. Yes, there is some sort of an Air Passengers Association of India (APAI), of which I am a member, which seems to be more interested only in an MLM kind of scheme to bring more members into the fold. So what can we, as passengers, with our lives in the hands of these fake and substandard pilots and their employers, do? Especially on domestic flights, where we have no options?

Here's a short primer, and if you are going on a domestic flight in the near future, you are well advised to read it as well as try to practise it. This is going to be the only way to force airlines and their unions to come out and take a reasoned, as well as pro-consumer stand on an issue that cannot be just brushed under the carpet again, with repeated interviews and quotes from the same old tired faces at the DGCA and in the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA).

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