India’s aviation regulator has removed its highest-ranking safety officer from his responsibility for complacency in handling the department that deals with prevention of accidents.
Bir Singh Rai, deputy director general of the Directorate of Air Safety, was removed from his duties with immediate effect by the director general of civil aviation, Bharat Bhushan, said two government officials, who declined to be identified.
Rai was leading the safety department since the 2010 retirement of then joint director general A.K. Chopra.
“It was building up,” said a government official cited above. “He could not produce timely reports on safety, investigations are running delayed.”
Bhushan confirmed the removal of Rai from safety department, but declined to comment further. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has called a meeting of local airline executives this week seeking a review of the action taken on various aircraft-related incidents and accidents and the remedial measures adopted.
Lalit Gupta, deputy director general of the aircraft engineering directorate in DGCA, has been given the additional portfolio of the air safety department.
Rai’s new portfolio hasn’t been announced. Rai could not be contacted despite repeated attempts. Text messages sent on his mobile remained unanswered. DGCA has been criticised in recent years for issues, including the threat of a possible downgrade in safety rankings by the US aviation regulator, licences issued to pilots based on fake marksheets, and several minor and a few major air crashes.
Besides, said the second government official, Rai had a confrontation with a foreign newspaper reporter leading to a statement that riled DGCA and government officials. After agreeing initially, Rai had refused to share accident investigation reports involving aircraft in India under the Right to Information Act (RTI), which Toronto’s Star newspaper had sought.
“These are not for the public,” Rai was cited as saying in Star’s 9 July report. “If you want to complain, go ahead. Complain to the Prime Minister of India.”
The decision to remove Rai wasn’t unexpected, according to Mohan Ranganthan, an air safety expert and member of the government-appointed Civil Aviation Safety Advisory Council.
“It is a good move because the number of accidents and incidents and their investigations has become a joke in the past few years,” said Ranganthan.
He mentioned an accident involving a Kingfisher Airlines aircraft as a case in point.
A turboprop ATR aircraft belonging to the airline and flying from Bhavnagar to Mumbai in November 2009 with 36 passengers on board skidded off the runway as it landed, causing extensive damage but no loss of life. The aircraft had to be scrapped. DGCA classified the event as an “incident” in its 2010 investigation report, as Mint reported on 25 November, though under its own rules it was supposed to be classified as an accident. DGCA withdrew the report and reclassified it as an accident.
An incident does not warrant a rise in insurance premiums for airlines and makes the safety record look better, Ranganathan said.
The second government official cited earlier, however, said removing an official will not change safety standards in the country. For a fleet of more than 1,000 aircraft flying in India, there are only 14 people in the air safety directorate to monitor them, averaging one person for 71 aircraft. “It cannot be changed overnight. There are a lot of problems in the department. It is a systematic fault and not one person can be blamed. If so many people retire and there is no intake, workload increases manifold. What do you do?” he said. “Five years back, there were fewer aircraft, fewer flights and no RTIs to add to the work.”