May 09--NEW DELHI -- India plans to appoint Washington-based consulting firm Wicks Group, PLLC to help restore its aviation safety ranking that was downgraded by the US regulator Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in January.
FAA's downgrade means Air India and Jet Airways (India) Ltd -- the two Indian airlines that fly to US destinations -- can't operate new flights to that country and have to suffer the humiliation of additional ramp checks on foreign soil, despite using new planes.
"It's a firm run by former FAA officials and it will help us streamline our processes, documentation as per norms. This will be good, irrespective of a FAA downgrade or not in the long term," said a government official who asked not to be identified, referring to the hiring of Wicks.
The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) is finalizing terms of reference for the Wicks Group.
Wicks, the same official said, has worked with countries such as Azerbaijan, Cape Verde, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Trinidad and Tobago and Ukraine and helped restore safety rankings after achieving compliance with international safety standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (Icao).
Glenn Wicks, founder and managing director of Wicks, did not respond to an email seeking comment.
John Goglia, a former member of the US National Transportation Safety Board that investigates all aircraft accidents in the US, said in a 31 January interview that "to get back to category 1, it might be helpful for DGCA to hire a consulting firm familiar with FAA audits and Icao requirements", and "other countries have found that helpful".
FAA highlighted untrained DGCA officials, the absence of documented procedures for new types of aircraft being inducted into India, and a shortage of flight inspectors to monitor India's growing airlines among the reasons it enumerated while downgrading India.
A downgrade does not reflect the safety of India's airlines but the ability of the Indian regulator to follow safety processes.
India's aviation regulator so far has hired 29 new flight inspectors; it was meant to hire nearly 75. Many others are not willing to join the regulator, said an airline official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
While the government organization has allowed market salaries to those willing to join, applicants do not want to miss out on perks such as free air tickets, promotions and work holidays granted to them in their airline jobs which DGCA cannot match. As a result, most people who are joining DGCA are retired or from airlines that have shut down.
Once hired, the inspectors also need to be trained and that would take time, the government official said. FAA also needs to be given a three-month notice for it to assess whether to upgrade India back to normal rankings. It is likely all this will be done by Wicks once it is on board, said a second government official who also asked not to be identified.
Restoration of the ranking is critical for airlines to expand into US and avoid unannounced checks by any foreign country.
Air India has 21 weekly flights between India and the US, Jet Airways seven, while other Indian airlines fly mostly to South-East and West Asia. New airlines AirAsia and Tata-SIA Airlines hope to launch their operations this year.
An airline pilot who flies to the US said that country's transport security administration has been so far easy on Indian airlines and there have been no ramp checks. The pilot asked not to be named.
Skilled and well-paid people is critical to India's air safety, an analyst said.
"Aviation is a risky business. Honesty and integrity, apart from great skills, are required to run DGCA; now with so many airlines and hundreds of aircraft, the tasks are far more onerous," said M.R. Sivaraman, former director general of DGCA.
FAA said it is up to DGCA to work on the problems. "We do not have anything new to say at this time and would leave it to DGCA to discuss their actions," FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette said in an email from Washington on whether hiring Wicks will help.
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