Sunday, April 3, 2011

No complications in the sale of Globemaster aircraft to IAF

BANGALORE: A senior official of Boeing Military Aircraft brushed aside claims that complications had arisen in the proposed $5.8 billion sale of ten C-17 Globemaster-III transport aircraft to the Indian Air Force, and said that the global defence vendor expected the deal to close by mid-2011.

In an exclusive interview to ET on Friday, Chris Chadwick , president, Boeing Military Aircraft, said that he had seen no indication that the Indian government was looking to pull the plug on what is, so far, the biggest defence deal between the United States and India. "The offsets package relating to the deal has already been approved. Plus, the IAF has to go through numerous government gateways before a final seal of approval can be given. Defence deals of this magnitude do take some time to close, and I expect them to take a decision by mid-2011," Mr Chadwick said.

Over the past month, speculation has been rife that New Delhi had asked Washington to provide greater clarity on the price at which the strategic airlifter has been sold to other countries, including Australia, compared with the price it was offering to India. If the deal goes through without any further hiccups, it will be the the most expensive military aviation purchase by India. The order for the ten C-17 transport aircraft has gone through the foreign military sales route, and was one of the highlights of US President Barack Obama's landmark visit to India last year.

"Boeing can execute the delivery on schedule and on cost," Chadwick pointed out.

Chadwick also admitted that the company had received inquiries for a further six Globemaster-III aircrafts for the IAF, but stressed that these were "strictly informal in nature."

"Since the is a FMS sale, the US government will be involved. But I would not be surprised if a followon order does come through," he said, adding that if the current deal gets signed by mid-2011, Boeing would be in a position to deliver the first C-17 aircraft by late 2013-14. The Globemaster-III, often regarded as the best transport aircraft in the world in its class, is seen as critical to the IAF's need as it looks beef up its presence along the country's northwest borders, which it shares with neighbours China and Pakistan.

Over the past few years, India has steadily refurbished several disused airfields in the region to allow operations by its transporters. Separately, Chadwick confirmed that the Indian Navy had indicated its need for four additional P-8I longrange maritime reconnaissance aircraft, a development first broken by ET in February earlier in the year. "They (the Indian Navy) have indicated their preference for four additional P-8I aircrafts. If it does take place, it will be through the Direct Commercial Sales route.

The new aircraft will be in addition to the eight the Navy had ordered in January 2009, for about $2.1 billion, as it bids to boost its maritime patrol capabilities as well as counter piracy threats and the growing Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean.

The St. Louis, Missouri-based defence behemoth will also be making an active bid for the Medium Range Multi-Role (MRMR) Aircraft contract.

"The Request for Procurement (RFP) is expected next year, and we will be responding. We plan on offering a derivative of the P-8 aircraft, based on the Boeing-737 platform," he added. Others expected to be in the running for the contract include Russia's Ilyushin, France's Dassault and EADS. Like most defence deals pursued in India, the acquisition of the MRMR aircraft has followed a long and tortuous route. Chadwick also reiterated the advantages that the IAF would garner, if it chose Boeing's F/A-18 Super Hornet as its preferred combat aircraft.

"We are yet to receive any formal indication or information from the Ministry of Defence or from the IAF as regards the Medium Range Multi-Role Combat Aircraft tender.

But, we are very fortunate to have a solid production line, and given its scale, we can meet the IAF's need very quickly," he said.

During Aero India 2011, Air Chief Marshal PV Naik had announced that New Delhi would actually sign the US $11 billion contract by September later in the year. Six fighters are competing for the IAF contract: Boeing's F/A-18 Super Hornet; Lockheed Martin's F-16IN Super Viper; the MiG Corporation's MiG-35; Saab's Gripen NG; Dassault's Rafale; and a four-nation European consortium's Eurofighter.

The pigsty that is civil aviation in India (Part III)

Over 90% of Indian domestic air passenger travel is supposed to be ‘business travel’, and is paid for by commercial entities. One would have thought that the largest protest would have come from them, since it is their human assets which are out there in the skies, being flown by fakes and frauds. However, they too have kept their silence... and the reasons are not too far to find

The complete business of buying, owning, operating and generally keeping in good order any private airplane is totally in the hands of the DGCA (Directorate General of Civil Aviation). One word or line out of place by any business leaders, and they would probably find that they have to take commercial flights, too. And that wouldn't really do, would it? I mean, can you imagine—not being permitted to take your private business plane on a holiday to watch the Indian Cricket Team defeat the Pakistani Cricket Team?

 Let’s get back to our series on civil aviation. There is somebody in the civil aviation part of governance in India who is very, very upset with the title as well as contents of the first two parts of this series (The pigsty that is civil aviation in India.

Apparently, the title and article are "against National Interest", and there is concern that the international community will laugh at us. Or worse. On the contents of the article itself, there is not much reflex, as yet. Whether the reality of aviation in India is not against national interest, known wide and far and currently the subject of immense interest on the Internet as well as with the international community, nothing.

Well, first things first—the reference to pigsty and all matters porky, including porcine fingers from the various parts of the Ministry of Civil Aviation, DGCA, et al, dipping into the fat and grabbing the grease, in a manner of speaking, were and are with reference to a book called Animal Farm. Penned not too long ago by a famous writer of Indian origin and Bengali birth, erstwhile from Motihari and Katihar, now in Bihar, called George Orwell. If they haven't read it, my sincere apologies, but I have always maintained that more of us should look towards Bihar for inspiration. Including of the National Interest sort, lately.

Next, as far as "National Interest" due to media reportage is concerned, spare me. There is no dearth of inside information many of us have on how anything even remotely resembling "National Interest" is more often than not the first victim to be spat out by the roadside the moment anything to do with civil aviation is taken up in India. Whether it is equity acquired free of cost by ministers who manage amazing links also with the people who operate accounts in tax havens, or whether it is plain and simple payoffs for everything down the line, the realities are known on the street.

You only have to try to fathom out the amazingly anti-people and probably anti-National terms and conditions of airport privatisation in India, for example, to see how the aviation scams when they finally surface will leave the Telecom and CWG/IOA scams way behind. Even John Company could not have got some of them past the natives with some of the conditions we find ourselves bound to lately.

But hey, National Interest, to be confused with personal benefit, means that deep resounding silences are preferred, with messages sent that anybody falling out of line shall be dealt with. Guess what, we only have National Interest in mind while writing, so, here we go.

To start with, barring the aviation authorities, what else can we deduce by way of the resounding silence from other entities involved in the aviation business in India? And what other solutions can we try to offer, as responsible citizens looking out for National interest? That is the question this third instalment hopes to answer.

Before that, an anecdote— it happened decades ago. I was in a shipping company's office when word came in that a ship had gone down, somewhere in the South China Sea, with all hands on board. This was in the days when dry cargo bulk carriers were sinking with regular frequency, and human error was the regular result of enquiries carried out by flag states—flag states being, largely, the so-called ‘Flag of Convenience’ countries. The usual SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) was to run around, ensure that all paperwork satisfying any seaworthiness requirements were updated before the inspectors landed up, and then to figure out how to maximise profits out of insurance as well as P&I Clubs. Simply put, human error was equal to all money recovered by the ship-owner, and some scanty compensation provided to relatives of the blamed and found guilty, already deceased.

Pretty much the same procedure is adopted with airline crash enquiries. It is never, or seldom, that the truth on manufacturing defects or maintenance or anything else comes out—except, lately, with some cases in developed countries. International TV crews cannot be everywhere—they weren't given access to the Mangalore crash, for example. Fake licence or not, will that information ever be re-verified? Has it ever been re-verified in the past? The answer is NO.

This placing all the blame on the humans on board went on, not surprisingly, until a British ship (the Derbyshire ) with British crew onboard went down. And the families, unions as well as other entities like educational and research organisations organised a very serious investigation. They paid for it, too, in millions of pounds. Which included—amongst other things—the hiring of deep sea submarines to go down to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and take photographs as well as try to figure out what happened.

The rest is known history, and brought forward the first real change in attitudes by ship-owners and shipyards towards safety in design, especially in larger ships. There was no human error at sea in this case. The huge ship simply broke up in microseconds and went down due to greed and design defects. There was sheer criminal negligence ashore at every stage, though—which the underwater probes brought out.

Something like that is what happens in civil aviation, too, especially in ‘emerging’ Third World countries. Like ours.

If an aviation accident takes place, almost every time—and this is borne out by the few accident investigation reports openly available—the blame is in most cases assigned to human error. The drill down attitude at Animal Farm, therefore, is simple—the little piglets, or humans at the front end, are disposable anyways. So does it really matter if their licence is genuine or not, as long as the paper trail behind it works to satisfy the owners and the insurance companies, in case and when an incident does occur?

All they will do is to go and hang another piglet.

But now we come to the part where the piglets take the battle to the bigger pigsty, the ones where the other fatter pigs are sitting, licking their chops, and waiting for the fuss to die down. As said before, a couple of middle or junior level DGCA officials will get it in the neck, some junior pilots without proper connections will lose their livelihoods, and after a while things will go back to as they were before.

If we really want to understand why that happens and has happened for centuries, then we have to take time out to read Emily Eden's bitingly incisive letters and reports on her visit to India. Before 1857. The fundamentals, however, of how things work in India remain the same. All that has changed is that the names of the players, be they the foreigners and their East India companies trying to rule us, or our own Maharajahs and their Munims bowing backwards to do their bidding, remain the same.

So, some basic fixes expected by consumers and customers from the real players, are proposed. All in the National Interest, of course?

1) Airlines will simply need to dig and drill down deeper into the licences held by pilots, especially those who have not come through regular channels like the Government run-training colleges, the Indian Air Force, their own cadet programmes or with otherwise impeccable backgrounds. Pilots who have come through the route of nepotism will have especially to be checked.

Which training college is genuine and which is fake is well known in the industry, and this information simply needs to be put to use. The simulators as well as internal checks and balances need to be in position. And any small security or detective agency will run a fairly comprehensive background check for a few thousand rupees.

In addition, airlines need to evolve their own cockpit crew matrix, like is done on ships as well as some of the better airlines. In brief, a new pilot must have an experienced co-pilot or another senior experienced pilot in the cockpit. Likewise, new co-pilots must work only under experienced pilots. The total number of actual flying hours on type should not be less than a certain number for both pilots in the cockpit, and this should be published data. Anything less than that "matrix", the total hours of experience inside a cockpit for both the pilots in the front seats, and the aircraft needs to be declared non-airworthy for scheduled passenger operations till rectified. A good number for this matrix, based on inputs from pilots, would be a minimum combined total of 4,000 hours "on type".

No point telling us customers about the food on board or something equally inane. We already know that co-pilots are hired basis on some amazing advance deposit to the airline process, and that promotions are done basis on external influences. Just let us know what the minimum hours in your cockpits will be when we fly.

2) Expecting the mainstream media to play honest intermediary is difficult—airlines and the rest of the related tourism industry are not just big advertisers, but also often have cross holdings in media companies. In addition, most airlines in India have deals with print and television media for barter on ad space against travel and other aviation services, like maintenance of aircraft and helicopters.

We would expect the tourism industry to come out very strongly with a statement on this issue of fake pilots. There is going to be no dearth of tourists who are going to think multiple times before boarding a domestic flight in India. That would certainly be in the ‘National Interest’. The tourism industry could start with running a boycott of some of the airlines which have been the more flagrant violators of aviation safety.

Why has the tourism industry not spoken up? Well, National Interest could be one reason, though the real reason probably has to do with the fact that the tourism industry is heavily linked with the travel industry, and the travel industry is going to be selectively strangled by the aviation guys if they dare speak up. Every large hotel chain, every travel company—depends on the Ministry of Civil Aviation and DGCA, who depend on the aviation industry. Better to keep quiet.

3) Aviation incident reports need to be made totally public, and available to travellers as well as others not just free of charge on the Internet after things are over, but also co-terminal with the proceedings which need to be open to the public. As of now, most of the truth probably gets shielded in National Interest, whatever that means. Even in the Indian Air Force, casualty and incident reports are freely distributed to airmen, so that they will learn from things.

Likewise, in other countries, the aviation regulators and authorities have a system of proactively encouraging incident reports from not just cockpit crew, but also cabin crew, ground staff and passengers. With the advent of the Internet, awareness and knowledge of matters pertaining to aviation is very high, and many people other than the pilot know what is going on —and when it is going wrong.

Within India, the DGCA and others do not even now have a working system, to accept and review inputs from those impacted by deficiencies in civil aviation. This needs to be fixed, very soon, and made public. As of now, anybody from within the industry complaining about an incident is usually marked as a whistleblower and then taught such a lesson that he or she never goes back to do so again, and anybody from outside the industry—like a passenger or other user—simply does not have an avenue.

However, if you scan the various Internet groups on the subject, then some of the experiences are terrifying. The regulator, DGCA, needs to fix this. Soon.

4) Taking "tests" for new entrants is another racket that needs to be controlled and regulated by the DGCA. As on date, a half-day "test" for a co-pilot's job sets a candidate back by Rs20,000 and more. Typically, for recruiting all of three-five co-pilots, an airline will place an advertisement, and attract anything between 300 and 3,000 applicants.

All of whom will put down Rs20,000 or more. And use all the clout they have. To answer a 2-page question paper, and if lucky, then move on to an oral viva. After which, most of them will not be given even the courtesy of a response, and will simply not get their money back.

3. Aviation Turbine Fuel hiked by 1.4 per cent

According to a PTI report, state- run oil companies, Indian Oil Corporation Limited (IOCL), Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited (HPCL) and Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL), yesterday hiked jet fuel prices by 1.4 per cent, the 12th increase in rates in a row since October last year.

The price of Aviation Turbine Fuel (ATF) in New Delhi was increased by Rs 846.87 per kilolitre, or 1.45 per cent, to Rs 59,157.32 per kilolitre. While in Mumbai jet fuel has been  priced at Rs 59,900.02 per kilolitre, as against Rs 59,031.39 per kilolitre.

The hike comes on back of a massive 6.14 per cent increase in rates effected from March 16, 2011 in line with rising crude oil prices. The basket of crude oil that India buys averaged USD 110.66 per barrel in March this year, as against an average price of USD 101.16 a barrel in February this year. The ATF price in Delhi on October 1, 2010 was Rs 40,728.52 per kilolitre. The rates have been increased by Rs 18,428.8 per kilolitre, or 45.24 per cent, in 12 tranches since then.

Fuel accounts for 40 per cent of airlines' operating cost. The three state-run oil companies  revise jet fuel prices on the 1st and 16th of every month, based on the average international price in the preceding fortnight.

Neha Jain

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