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India's 'fake' pilots

Soutik Biswas | 04:00 UK time, Thursday, 17 March 2011

Airplane in India

Is it safe to fly in India? On the face of it, yes. One of the world's fastest growing aviation markets - nearly 50 million passengers flew domestically last year, up 18% from 2009 - has a sturdy safety record. Last year's Air India crash at Mangalore was the first in nearly 10 years. But some recent disquieting developments have rattled air passengers and raised serious doubts about the quality of the people who are flying what most believe are reasonably well-maintained machines.


Federal aviation authorities say they will be checking the licences of some 4,000 pilots flying commercial aircraft after allegations that at least four were found to have fake documents. Two have been arrested for using fake certificates to obtain licences.

The first, a pilot from the perpetually ailing, state-owned Air India, apparently fabricated his qualifications. The other, who was arrested last week after damaging the aircraft during landing, was found to have used fake documents to get her licence. The licences of the other two pilots are apparently riddled with irregularities, and both have reportedly disappeared.

According to one report by news channel CNN-IBN, a pilot who was caught cheating during a flying test in the US in 2000 and denied a licence, got a commercial licence on his return to India by forging his qualifications and has since been working as a senior pilot with Air India. Air India spokesman Kamaljeet Rattan would not discuss that particular case with the BBC. But he tells me the airline is scrutinising the papers of a dozen pilots. "It's nothing very serious, and not at all scary," he says. "These are routine checks."

Senior aviation officials echo the views of Mr Rattan. "Fake licences are very few so there is no need to panic," says Bharat Bhushan, India's most senior civial aviation official. But there are suspicions that pilots cannot be faking their papers without some inside help. And aviation analysts believe this is the time to crack down. "This is a very serious issue," Kapil Kaul of Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation tells me. "When pilots are faking their certificates it is a criminal offence. It points to a systemic failure. Airline operators also cannot absolve themselves of responsibility. They need to have more vigorous checks. And decisive action needs to be taken against the pilots."

As if all this was not enough, last week the government announced that 57 pilots reporting for duty had tested over the limit for alcohol in the past two years. All were prevented from joining their aircraft. The issue was raised in parliament - according to a parliamentary document I have seen, the pilots were employed by every leading private airline as well as Air India. Ten were sacked; others had their licences suspended or were taken off the flight roster.

The airlines have been keeping a low profile on this - like Mr Rattan they want to play down the severity of the problems. By and large Indians appear to have been reassured by the government announcement. There's been no public outcry. But concerns about the quality of some pilots have been around for a while. Last August former civil aviation minister Praful Patel was asked in parliament whether commercial pilots had been drunk on duty. He replied there had been no such incident. Another MP actually asked Mr Patel this year whether "under-trained pilots are flying commercial flights... risking the lives of hundreds of passengers". Again the minister denied any such possibility.

Although the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA)is a respected and tested regulator, experts say that breakneck growth has presented regulatory challenges across the industry from the airline operators to their government overseers. The number of domestic air passengers is expected to grow 9%-10% annually to more than 150 million by 2020. India now has some 15 airline operators with a fleet of 400-plus planes. The number of airports has shot up to 82 from 50 in a decade. Pilots faking papers is not unheard of. In China 200 pilots were found with fake papers in 2008, according to the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation. The Philippines also faced a similar problem. India now has the world's fourth largest number of domestic fliers after the US, China and Japan. Many here are hoping such growth does not come at the expense of passenger safety.

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