2018: Will finally Air India go to private hands?

If domestic aviation market reaching a new high by flying 10 crore passengers this year, 2018 will have the big story in Air India when the government disinvest its stakes in the national carrier.

The Group of Ministers (GoM) under Finance Minister Arun Jaitley is burning the midnight oil to finalise the contours of the strategic disinvestment of the national carrier, which has amassed a loss of over Rs 50,000 crore.

The industry will be keenly watching the developments on Air India early next year and how much money the government would earn through divesting its stakes. There will be intensive bidding for the national carrier and the winner may end up marching ahead with a substantive slice of the market.


It was just a week before the government decided on disinvesting Air India on June 28 that the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, the country’s aviation regulator, came up with a figure that lit up the industry’s mood. It said, for the first time in country’s aviation history, domestic carriers flew more than one crore passengers (in May) in a month.

This feat was repeated again in November at 1.05 crore and it led to breaching another landmark. This time, Indian carriers carried more than 10 crore fliers for the first time in a calender year.

Then came the rolling out of Regional Connectivity Scheme or UDAN to connect otherwise unconnected small towns by air. Fares were capped at Rs 2,500 crore for a one-hour-long flight as per the scheme and around 80 unused or under-used airports were connected.

If these presented the rosy picture for the sector, all was not easy for the carriers and their staff. Fliers were becoming more aggressive and staff were at the receiving end, airlines claimed while passengers faulted “uncouth” behaviour.

History was created when the government came out with a ‘no-fly list’ for the first time after repeated incidents of misbehaviour with airline staff. The slapping of an Air India airport manager by Shiv Sena MP Ravindra Gaikwad triggered an avalanche of protests, leading to the government finalising the contours of putting erratic and violent fliers on the check.

However, such incidents did not deter the airlines from expanding their fleet. Market leader IndiGo announced its plans to 50 ATR turbo-prop planes, a deal that could run into USD 1.3 billion at list price, with an aim to tap the regional aviation market. SpiceJet, GoAir and Jet Airways are also expecting more planes in their fleet next year.

Next year could see better finances for the domestic airlines. Credit rating agency ICRA has recently said that domestic airlines are expected to reduce losses this fiscal ending March riding on healthy seat occupancy coupled by a moderation in capacity, rise in tourism demand and economic environment.

However, it has warned that inadequate aviation infrastructure, which has constrained the performance of airlines, remained a bottleneck. This would be one area where the government would have to work on.

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald on Dec 28, 2017)


Drone testing in 23 sites across India

The aeronautical test range in Chitradurga, Ganimangala village and Coorg’s Choudigudi Estate in Karnataka are likely to form part of 23 sites identified by the civil aviation regulator for testing efficacy of Unmanned Aerial Systems or drones in the country.

The locations were identified in a draft Civil Aviation Requirement (CAR) publicised by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA).

“To encourage new technology, Indian organisations involved in research and development related activity of RPAS, having obtained industrial license from DIPP (Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion), shall use the test sites for testing/demonstration purpose,” the draft said.

Besides the three sites in Karnataka, there are eight more locations in south India where one can do the testing. There are four such locations in Tamil Nadu (Vellore, Salem, Erode and Coimbatore), two in Kerala (Munnar and Idukki) and one in Telangana (Mulugu village in Hyderabad).

Other sites include Surendranagar in Gujarat as well as Aurangabad, Amravati, Ahmednagar, Satara and Shirpur airport.


The draft also said that people and companies will have to take special clearance for delivering goods using drones, according to new draft.

Drones should not “discharge or drop substances unless specially cleared and mentioned in UAOP (Unmanned Aircraft Operator Permit)”. It also disallows drones being used for transporting any any hazardous material such as explosives or animal or human payload.

The newly publicised draft also puts the onus on operators of drones in ensuring privacy of individuals while giving Indian Air Force (IAF) and Airports Authority of India (AAI) powers to monitor drone movements in entire country. The drone pilot will also be “liable to ensure that privacy norms of individuals are not compromised in any manner”.

Model aircraft up to 2kg without any payload and flown below 200 feet inside educational institution premises will not require unique identity number or UAOP. “Aeromodellers/recreational flyers under this category shall be fully responsible for its operation, safety and security. They shall inform the local police authorities before undertaking such activities even for indoor operation,” it said.

“UAS operations present problems to the regulator in terms of ensuring safety of other users of airspace and persons on the ground. However, in view of technological advancements in UAS over the years and their increased civil applications, it has become necessary to develop regulations for operations of this activity,” the DGCA said explaining the reason for bringing out the regulation.

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald on Nov 4, 2017)

Photo courtesy: thewire.in

CAG raps MoCA for Kingfisher Airlines’ dues

The Ministry of Civil Aviation has got a rap on its knuckles from the government auditor for “failing” to take steps to recover Rs 9.19 crore from Kingfisher Airlines.

The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) said in a report tabled in Parliament that the Ministry has “failed to ensure” that Bangalore International Airport Ltd (BIAL) collect dues from the now-defunct Kingfisher Airlines.


BIAL was to collect Passenger Service Fee through airlines and deposit with the government.

In March 2014, BIAL had sought the approval of the Ministry to write off the dues recoverable from the airline.

“The proposal of BIAL is not tenable as it would be an undue favour to the defaulter and condonation of faikure of BIAL to fulfill its fiduciary responsibility,” the CAG said.

“As a result, outstanding dues against airlines accumulated and recovery of Rs 9.19 crore from Kingfisher Airlines was rendered doubtful,” it said.

The matter was reported to the Ministry in April last year but the CAG was awaiting reply till January this year.

As of March 2914, Kingfisher Airlines had an outstanding of Rs 16.77 crore out of which Rs 9.64 crore was outstanding for more than one year.

It further increased to Rs 17.44 crore as on March 2016 of which Rs 10.12 crore was outstanding for more than one year, the CAG said. Out of this, Rs 9.19 crore was outstanding from 2012-13 onwards from Kingfisher Airlines, which ceased operations in September 2012.

Though the Ministry received periodic accounts of BIAL, the CAG said, at no time the Ministry directed the airport operator to collect and remit the dues. As per an agreement, BIAL has to deposit dues within 21 days of a request from the government.

“The SOP also did not provide for levyif penal interest for non-payment of dues by the Airlines. In the absence of such a clause, non-recovery of dues constituted an interest-free loan to Kingfisher Airlines,” it said.

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald on July 21, 2017)

Air India’s crash landing

After amassing a debt of around Rs 52,000 crore, Air India is once again on sale. Prospective buyers are looking at options like whether they should buy the whole stakes or whether they should opt for a different proposition? Government is yet to come out with the contours of the stake sale but the “in principle” nod for the national carrier’s disinvestment has generated a lot of interest in the aviation sector. Market leader IndiGo has made public its interest in buying Air India’s international operations as it plans to expand its business to long haul international services. Questions are also raised why should the government run an airline and that it should be left to the experts and private sector.

Many talks about the legacy issues, the manpower pool, the debt and how the national carrier lost out in the race. Lack of imagination at the top and the ‘chalta hai’ attitude of the workforce led to the downfall of the airline, many believe. The debt-trap could have been avoided and allegations surface that it was deliberately thrust upon the national carrier to help private sector players. Air India still had several routes which were surrendered meekly while a huge order for aircraft in the garb of expansion also put the airline in stress. The airline has a working capital loan of Rs 30,000 crore and 20-22,000 crore loan on airline purchase.


The latest problems could be linked the decisions taken during UPA regime on aircraft purchase, lease of aircraft and giving up profit making routes. The CBI has already registered three cases, saying these decisions had caused “loss of tens of thousands of crores of rupees” to the exchequer.

The CBI FIR says the order to purchase 111 aircraft for Rs 70,000 crore caused financial loss to the “already stressed national carrier”. Initially, Air India had not decided to buy so many aircraft however the number rose from 28 in 2004 to 111 later. It said the leasing of a large number of aircraft without due consideration, proper route study and marketing or price strategy was unwarranted. Aircraft were leased even while the acquisition process was on.

The airline also gave up profit making routes and timings of Air India in favour of national and international private airlines — 12 international and domestic routes, including Bengaluru-Bhubhaneswar and Bengaluru-Ahmedabad sectors. The FIR is damning on the decision making process when it said, “it is claimed that on the directions of the Ministry of Civil Aviation, issued in conspiracy with private domestic and foreign airlines, Air India withdrew its services from many profit-making routes and gave away its routes to private and foreign operators without taking any reciprocal benefits”. It goes on to say that on all routes vacated by Air India “private airlines namely Jet Airways, (now defunct) Kingfisher Airlines, GoAir, IndiGo, SpiceJet, Paramount Airways etc started operating and made profits”. On lucrative routes like Mumbai-Dubai or Mumbai-Ahmedabad, Air India reduced flights and gave “its opponents a major market share”. Foreign airlines were given unrestricted entry into India and major routes were given to them without taking any reciprocal benefits for the national carrier.

These are still allegations in an FIR filed by CBI and yet to be proved in a court of law. But if true, several Air India watchers vouch for the veracity, it shows how systematically the national carrier was made a deadwood. Left parties have already raised a hue and cry over the disinvestment plan. CPI(M) says Air India was “crippled and burdened” with debt due to “monumental miscalculation and certain wrong decisions taken by successive governments at the Centre” and the airline is now being made the “scapegoat and sought to be privatised”.

It appears that the national carrier was treated by government and its management as something that should be sold out at any cost. While the government should not discriminate private players, many actions taken were counter-productive to Air India. Air India was not allowed to flourish, as if someone was always putting some blocks on the road against the national carrier. However, in the past couple of years, the airline was on a recovery path and has posted operational profit. The question has to be asked how it amassed such debt. Why it landed in such a financial mess? Why is not Air India the preferred airlines? Is only UPA regime on the wrong? Has the decision not to buy aircraft between 1998 and 2004 had an impact on the national carrier? Who is responsible for these? The country needs to know as the airline is now on for sale.

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald on July 9, 2017)

No self medication mid-air, airline crew told

Do not take medicines without consulting a doctor mid-air. This is the advice given by an investigation panel to aircraft crew following an incident on a SpiceJet flight.

The recommendation by the Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau (AAIB) came recently following its investigation into an incident in January 2014 where a SpiceJet pilot-in-command (PIC) fell ill mid-air after he took a pain killer for his neck pain mid-air.

Though the plane landed safely, the AAIB has not taken the incident lightly and in its recommendation to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), it said the regulator should sensitise all airlines to educate their crew of the “consequences of self-medication and also the importance of communicating any ailments” to the company doctor during the pre-flight medical.

“DGCA should issue instructions to all schedule operators should to sensitize flight crew recurrent training on the importance of procedures in case of flight crew incapacitation,” it said.

The panel said the “most probable cause of the SpiceJet pilot getting incapacitated was due to side-effects of a pain killer which he took any prescription or consultation by a doctor”.

Prior to the flight Mumbai-Hyderabad on 8 January 2014, the PIC had neck pain but he decided to continue with his flight schedule as the pain was reducing. He also did not record this during the pre-flight check-up.

“During flight he experienced pain in the neck and consumed a pain killer medicine in flight to subside the pain. During descent, he experienced partial loss of hearing and a blurred vision and decided to take an anti-allergic tablet to counter the presumed reaction of the pain killer medicine,” the report said.

According to the report, the PIC said due to repeated stretching of arms to operate controls and overhead panels the neck pain got aggravated and for relief, he decided to take a pain killer from his flight bag in which he used to carry over the counter medicine like pain killer and anti-allergic medicine.

During descent into Hyderabad, he experienced partial loss of hearing and a blurred vision. To counter the existing reaction of the painkiller he took an anti-allergic tablet, the symptoms improved after 10 minutes of taking anti-allergic medicine, it said.

“The PIC apprised his First Officer regarding his health condition and briefed him about the medicines he had consumed. He also instructed the first officer to carry out an auto-land and inform ATC to provide a doctor on ground after landing,” it said.

June 17, 2017

Tigerair-Scoot to further footprints in India

GOLD COAST (Australia): Tigerair and Scoot, the no-frills subsidiaries of Singapore Airlines that will merge by July-end, are looking at expanding its footprints in India by tapping international travellers from Tier-2 cities and secondary markets in the country.

The airlines, which will start functioning under a single brand ‘Scoot’ from July 25 after the merger, believes that the international connectivity from Tier-2 cities in India is “currently untapped” and is an area where it sees a “lot of growth opportunities”.

“It is part of our strategy to tap into Tier-2 cities and secondary markets in India…We are definitely keen on expansion and are constantly exploring avenues to expand our footprint in India. We are already studying markets in India that we want to go to next. However, we will need to assess the market demand before we go ahead with any such plan,” Scoot and Tigerair CEO Lee Lik Hsin said in an email.


Tigerair, a short-haul airline, currently operates from Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Kochi, Tiruchirappalli and Lucknow while Scoot, a medium-haul operator, operates from Chennai, Amritsar and Jaipur to Singapore and to other destinations like Australia.

Hsin said South India has been their focus area since the commencement of operations in India and “still see a lot of demand from existing markets” there as well as from “several smaller markets in South India that we do not operate to at the moment”.

Asked whether they would expand beyond the south Indian market, he said, “we are already evaluating options for expansion in North India and would be happy to further expand our footprint all across India.”

The increase in destinations had helped the airlines capture more passengers. While there was an increase of 8.6% from 2013 to 2014, it declined to 7.1% in 2015 compared to 2014.

However, last year saw a 22.3% rise from 2015 with the airlines attributing the significant increase in flown passengers to the launch of new routes Amritsar and Jaipur in May and Oct respectively.

Acknowledging the “tremendous growth opportunities” in India’s aviation sector, Hsin said the UDAN or Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS) will step up air connectivity to smaller cities and towns. “With Indian travellers increasingly looking at affordable international travel, international low-cost carriers operating to India have great prospects to offer long-haul budget travel options,” he said.

Queried about their target for India in the coming years, Hsin said they will continue to access potential tier 2 cities in India for further expansion, to cater to both leisure and business demand between India to Singapore and beyond.

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald on Jun 17, 2017)

AI accident: Non-adherence to SOP cost a life

Overlooking procedures appeared to have claimed the life of an Air India ground service engineer when he was sucked into an aircraft in Mumbai two years ago, an investigation has suggested.

The Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau (AAIB) report into the December 2015 incident said non-adherence to Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) and rushing crew to operate a delayed flight resulted in the tragic incident.

The report, submitted to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) recently, is based on the 16 December 2015 incident in Mumbai airport when Air India ground staff Subramaniam died after he was sucked into the national carrier’s aircraft.

According to the report, the crew who operated the Rajkot-Mumbai flight were to fly Mumbai-Hyderabad service. However, the Mumbai-Hyderabad flight was delayed as the Rajkot flight did not land on time.

This prompted Air India’s another pilot on Hyderabad flight to take clearance from the ATC to handle the aircraft. The pilot assigned to fly the plane reached the cockpit just seven minutes before the scheduled take-off.

He told the panel that he took clearance from the Ground Engineer and right clearance from co-pilot regarding obstruction. During push back, the engines were started and the parking brakes were put on after reaching the required position on taxiway. He then put the parking brakes off, switch on the taxi light and gave power to taxi.

However, four ground personnel were still around the nose of aircraft. The aircraft then started moving and the deceased Ground Service Engineer was standing facing back towards the aircraft with headphone on his head. “The aircraft right hand side engine came very close to the deceased and sucked him. All the other ground personnel ran away from the aircraft and the tow truck driver also took the tow truck away from the aircraft leaving tow bar,” the report said.

The co-pilot had told the panel that the ground staff had “given clearance followed by thumbs up” and not used torch for clearance. However, the ground staff refuted this saying the deceased staff had “neither shown thumb or pin to pilot nor by any other person”.

According to Operations Manual, one person from the ground crew has must be designated as marshaller and give thumbs up signal or at night with marshalling flash light wand.

The report concluded that “non-adherence to SOP and delayed departure of flight due to improper rostering of crew resulted in the accident”.

The AAIB recommended that crew must board aircraft 20 minutes prior to scheduled departure and minimum 30 minutes of gap should be there in case of change of aircraft between two consecutive flights.

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald on Jun 14, 2017)

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