Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Real Fear Of Flying


I have been mostly on the road for the last three weeks. Which means catching flights of various shapes, sizes and of course pilots. I am worried. Because neither the airline, India's regulatory body (Director General of Civil Aviation) seem to know whether the pilots flying the aircraft have earned their licenses honestly and didn't forge their tests. And till some 4,500 licenses are fully scanned, we will entrust our lives to pilots whose credentials are not re-established.

I was reading an insightful piece in the Business Standard which talks about how the pilots forged critical components of the tests required to become certified pilots. For instance, most of the now suspended pilots flunked papers on aviation meteorology, radio aids and air nagivation. How this escaped everyone's attention is a little bit of a mystery. Or not.

The matter picked up steam when the DGCA ordered an inquiry into an improper landing in January (on the nosewheel) by a pilot who, amazingly, had commanded flights with IndiGo Airlines for two years. Turned out she had a forged certificate showing she cleared the tests in November 2009, and thus got the Airlines Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL). A few more names cropped up soon, including one from Air India and another (apparently the authorities are hunting a few) from IndiGo.

Continous Testing

I have no doubt that the airlines themselves are turning over every scrap of paper they can lay their hands on to establish whether the records are in order. As we all know, airlines constantly run their own tests and periodic simulator training sessions. Its not like you get hired it and you are in for life. You are tested constantly - almost like a competition sports player - and have to perform to perfection all the time.

So its a little funny that pilots who have not slipped up for two years suddenly make a glaring error, which in turn starts the chain of events that gets them caught. The other possibility is that they were slipping up all the while and continued to fly. Which of course is highly irregular but also unlikely as no airline would risk its passengers' lives and thus its reputation.

So is there a problem with the quality and nature of testing itself ? Could be, because many pilots say that the Indian DGCA has higher rigor than most other regulatory bodies. This in turn forces desperately aspiring pilots to take measures such as this. Because in their minds they know that they might forge exam papers but will fly the aircraft with the diligence it requires.
Thats a talking point but obviously does not fly because laws have been broken.

Unfair On The Rest

Since everyone is `guilty' until proved `innocent', all record's must be scanned. This is good inasmuch as you never know what else might pop up. Its bad because the reputation of the majority has been sullied. Many pilots I know have earned their licenses through the straight, hard route. By pooling family savings, slogging hard and then battling with the bureaucracy to get their licenses. They have recourse to neither clout or money which might help speed things up.

Coming as this does on the heels of various other scams, including 2G, its a sign of how desperation and aspiration make for a terrible combination in an economy where there more aspirers for any well paying and/or glamorous profession than jobs going. Fudging of certificates happens all the time in the information technology and business process outsourcing (BPO) industries. And hence the creation of a National Skills Register (NSR) by industry body Nasscom. Perhaps the airlines also need something similar. Am sure the solutions will be found, but flying will not be the same. At least for a while.

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