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The DGCA has not been without its quota of red tapism, adversely impacting the aviation industry, particularly business aviation
The ruling party has changed, but the officials remain the same. The government of the day may have the best of intentions, but the officialdom continues to revel in practices that are difficult to shed – corruption, bureaucratic delays, incompetence and the like are not a thing of the past. The system is such that it is difficult to beat it. Exceptions may be there, but then they are few.
In the aviation sector, the aviation regulator in India is the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), responsible for implementing, controlling and supervising airworthiness standards, safety of operations and crew training. The DGCA has not been without its quota of red tapism, adversely impacting the aviation industry, particularly business aviation.
Take the recent instance of how the Swiss solar-power aircraft Solar Impulse-2 on a world tour ended up on the wrong side of DGCA, slightly affecting its itinerary and sending the wrong signal to the world on how the Indian bureaucracy can be frustrating. Solar Impulse team planned to fly over Ganga and photograph the unique aircraft in the backdrop of famous ghats such as Dashashwamedh and Manikarnika, but the DGCA is said to have denied permission as per media reports. Two permissions were required – one from the local administration and the other from DGCA, while the former gave its nod, the latter was sitting on the files with some excuse or the other.
In yet another instance, the aviation dreams of Rohit Mathur, owner of Heritage Aviation, remained unfulfilled, thanks to the spanner in the works – a la DGCA. Mathur applied for a nonscheduled operator permit (NSOP) in December 2014, having imported on lease an AgustaWestland 109, a six-seat helicopter that can fly 640 kilometres non-stop. To his bad luck the DGCA had inserted a new clause in November 2014 – the CAP 3100 rule which states that the applicant should train the Flight Operations Instructor (FOI) if the aircraft is new and the FOI has no knowledge about it. If an applicant imports an aircraft that is unfamiliar to a DGCA FOI, it is the responsibility of the applicant to train the FOI.
According to media reports, training of an FOI can set back an applicant by at least Rs. 30 lakh as it involves flying the officer abroad, paying for accommodation, hiring simulators and training aircraft. Mathur refused to bear the cost of training of a DGCA inspector and is waiting to get his permission. Meanwhile, he is running up a huge bill for having purchased the aircraft, paying salaries of pilots and other crew. The AgustaWestland chopper is grounded but he has to pay the maintenance company a substantial sum every month.
The DGCA does not spare anyone. Orbit Aviation, where the Deputy Chief Minister of Punjab Sukhbir Singh Badal, is a shareholder, has also run into problems with the DGCA. Orbit Aviation imported a twin-engine, six-seater Gulfstream G150 business jet, but received the clearance after a long delay. The company had to train DGCA officers as the G150 is new to India.
Clearances Take Ages
Then there is the case of a Cessna 340 aircraft being held up for over three years. It was stuck in the wrangle between the Customs Commissionerate, Ahmedabad, and the DGCA. The aircraft was worth Rs. 1.5 crore, but the owner ended up paying nearly Rs. 1 crore for parking charges at the airport, besides nearly Rs. 60 lakh in customs duty. As per reports, the aircraft entered Indian airspace on August 21, 2008, and landed at Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel International Airport in Ahmedabad for the mandatory customs clearance. The light aircraft was procured on behalf of Bengaluru-based Agni Aviation Consultants on a 45-day lease for cloud-seeding demonstration at Gadag in Karnataka. After getting the customs clearance at Ahmedabad, the flight landed at Bengaluru airport for refuelling but was grounded as it developed technical snags. Later Agni Aviation officials approached the DGCA seeking permission to get spare parts for repair and a subsequent test flight to take back the aircraft to the US since the lease period was only 45 days.
The single aircraft owner’s woes are endless. Flying to international destinations, even to Kathmandu, can be cumbersome and almost impossible.
The permission was not granted and in May 2009, the DGCA informed the customs authorities in Bengaluru that Agni Aviation had falsely come up with the issue of technical snag with an intention of retaining the aircraft without paying the customs duty. Subsequently, the Additional Commissioner (Customs) in Ahmedabad seized the aircraft and imposed a duty of over Rs. 37 lakh. After protracted correspondence, DGCA on September 10, 2009, allowed Agni to carry out the test flight to ascertain the serviceability of the aircraft. But the Customs Commissionerate refused to let it go without claiming the customs duty.
In 2011, the Customs Commissioner (Appeal) P.K. Sinha said the value of the aircraft was lower than the combined outstanding dues to be collected from Agni Aviation company. The Customs Commissioner, however, refuted the DGCA’s claim that the company wanted to retain the aircraft.
Another media report has highlighted how a Mumbai-based entrepreneur Aditya Khaitan has had to go through harrowing time, unable to cut through the bureaucratic red tape. Khaitan with two other partners own a Beechcraft and a helicopter. The Mumbai International Airport Limited has made it amply clear that it has no space for small aircraft and his plane is required to be parked in Pune. If he has to use the aircraft, either he or his pilots have to drive or fly down to Pune to get the aircraft on its flight plan. And the plane cannot fly into or out of Mumbai between 8-10 a.m.; 5.30-7.30 p.m.; 9.15-11.15 p.m. and 2-4 a.m., as these are peak hours for commercial airliners. These are just logistical nightmares for a small aircraft owner, in the absence of small airports in the cities. But when it comes to regulatory compliances, the small aircraft owner is almost on par with a commercial airline. All compliances, in terms of checklists, documentation and clearances, are the same for airline operators and a single-aircraft owner.
The single aircraft owner’s woes are endless. Flying to international destinations, even to Kathmandu, can be cumbersome and almost impossible. The DGCA has introduced rules – CAP 3100 which mandates that everyone comply with a checklist of 30 to 35 items and complying with them is a big ordeal.
The general aviation sector has been raising these issues now and then, and how these rules and red tapism is killing the industry, but to no avail. There is the story of how media and real estate tycoon Donald Trump had to cool his heels in his ultra-luxury Boeing 757 at Mumbai airport for nearly four hours while his staff was running from pillar to post to get permission to land in Pune. The permission had to come from Air Headquarters as there were foreign nationals on the aircraft.
The President of Business Aircraft Operators Association (BAOA) Rohit Kapur states: “Business and general aviation plays a constructive role in various economies by improving the reach of businesses. We cannot expect balanced growth in a country with such a vast geography if industry captains cannot reach resources and business opportunities.” The number of business aircraft in India is small, but there is enormous potential, stymied only by bureaucratic hurdles.
Taxation is another major stumbling block. As per government rules, business aircraft are allowed to be imported in two categories – either for private use or as a non-scheduled operator. A private aircraft attracts import duties between 19 and 21 per cent, while the NSOPs have lower duties at 2.5 to 3 per cent, which in turn has seen many a private owner opting to get aircraft under NSOP route. Rules such as these are not good for both, the government and the aviation sector and it is time that the government brings in a more rational approach.
A lot of hopes are pinned on the present dispensation to get things in order. One needs to see how the cat is going to be belled and by whom.