Boeing 737 MAX Grounded: How DGCA & MoCA Can ‘Clean Up’ Our Skies
Post the Ethiopian Airlines crash, DGCA directed airlines operating Boeing 737 Max aircraft to follow more checks.
In a remarkable show of alacrity, the Indian Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) grounded the Boeing 737 MAX fleet after two crashes, involving the plane, led to 346 deaths in less than six months.
This action by a regulator, that instantly grounds aircrew for even using mouthwash before a flight, came after many smaller countries took their decisions. I welcome this bold step in the true spirit of the old Hindi aphorism ‘der aaye, durust aaye’ (came late, but came safely).
This is a list of countries where the Boeing 737 MAX cannot fly as of date. Till late on 14 March night, the world waited with bated breath for the US Federal Aviation Authority's (FAA) decision. The FAA, a paragon of virtue for matters aviation, sent out this disappointing tweet on 13 March, even after the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) had grounded the MAX fleet: “Thus far, our reviews show no systemic performance issues and provides no basis to order grounding of the aircraft.”
Many aviation watchers like me watched in utter shock. Then, in a bizarre but totally understandable U-turn a few hours later, the FAA grounded the Boeing 737 MAX. Even as they took time to decide, their confusing tweets invited strong reactions from Twitterati.
Please take a look:
Apparently, blood has a different colour in the US, and it took 'satellite data' to confirm that too many people had died. The FAA will have to live with this ignominy for weeks to come. It almost appeared like they had sold their soul to the moneybags, while bodybags were piling up at Addis Ababa.
Safety and Security
Safety and security are two holy cows in aviation nobody can touch. Aviation and aviation security regulators always take the moral high ground when it comes to these two animals. But things can be different when either big money or bad publicity is involved. In the 737 MAX case, there's a delicate combination of the two.
A day after the Ethiopian Airlines B737 MAX 8 aircraft ET-AVJ crashed soon after takeoff from Addis Ababa airport, killing 157 passengers, a public notice was issued by Indian regulator DGCA, directing airlines operating these aircraft to follow additional checks and balances in equipment serviceability, and crew experience.
Then they waited to see which side the wind blows.
‘MAX’ is ‘MIN’ in India
Only two Indian carriers, SpiceJet (12 aircraft) and Jet Airways (5 aircraft) have the B737 MAX in their fleet. That's not a big number at all, considering thousands of commercial airplanes flying around in Indian skies, led by the incumbent government's ‘hawai chappal to hawai jahaz’ vision (flying for everyone). The decision to ground would have been a no-brainer, many felt. Yet, there was that finite pause.
Soon after the Ethiopian crash, there was public uproar the world over, regarding safety of the 737 MAX 8 and its Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS).
The same MCAS behaviour, triggered by a faulty angle of the attack sensor, is suspected to be behind the Lion Air Flight 610’s crash off the Indonesian coast in October 2018, that killed 186.
After many countries like China, Singapore, Australia, Ethiopia, Nigeria, UK, etc. grounded the MAX 8, India followed suit. Whether this was done fearing public outrage or genuine safety concerns, we don't know. What matters is we took the decision when we did. FAA dragged its feet.
‘Money Bags’ or ‘Body Bags’?
It's a tough call to compare FAA with DGCA. But one thing is clear. When it comes to big money or powerful lobbies, nobody is above the board. Here's my question to both these regulators:
What if the airplane in question was an Airbus?
Boeing is an American company. Airbus is European. Boeing 737 is said to be the highest selling commercial jetliner in history . The 737 MAX is the fourth generation of this airplane. As of February 2019, over 15,000 Boeing 737s have been ordered, of which 5,000 are for the MAX (376 delivered). Fortunately, the 737 MAX is minimum in India. In India, Indigo Airlines alone has over 190 Airbus A320s.
Now please sit back and reflect on the numbers, jobs, homes and hearths involved in a decision like this.
Ah! The moment of truth is here!
When it comes to big money and decisions that affect millions of lives and livelihoods, nobody is immune to bias or moral turpitude.
DGCA, Please Seize the Initiative, Set the Bar High... and Logical!
I take this opportunity to applaud DGCA, often at the receiving end of mirth and criticism for their dodgy ways and penchant for 'copying' from here and there. At least once, you submitted your homework before the FAA did. So this is a good time as any to do some more introspection, seize the initiative and shape course to become the gold standard for aviation – a tough call, but eminently doable.
Let me elaborate with some simple examples that can be the start point for such transformation.
First up on any aircrew’s flying day in India, is the pre-flight breath-analyser check (BA check). In India, the BA check is mandatory before every single flight or the first flight in a series of flights.
Whether or not you have the situation (NSOP vs scheduled operators), conditions or prescribed equipment, the BA check is inviolable here. Great. Who can debate a rule which holds 'zero' as pass-mark for a test called 'medical examination of aircraft personnel for alcohol consumption'?
The difference is in the minute details of how such tests are administered and documented. The Civil Aviation Requirement (CAR) on the subject, talks at length about 'blood alcohol', while what's measured is your breath!
A Quicksand of Rules
India is the only country in the world which requires a breath analyser check to be performed, under CCTV, with a doctor/paramedic in attendance, before the first flight, each and every day. It is a system founded in good intentions but rooted in mistrust, fraught with unnecessary risks and violates an individual's right to privacy and employment. It is also a primary cause for many 'casualties', which is but expected in a ‘zero’ tolerance system. In my time, I have seen highly experienced and skilled aircrew grounded because of bloopers like these:
- Use of mouthwash
- Use of OTC expectorants
- Dental procedures involving use of sanitisers/disinfectants
- Cleaning of medical inspection rooms with sanitisers / disinfectants (crazy? It's true!)
- Missing a BA check due to memory lapse, distraction or task saturation
- Use of after-shave lotions or sanitisers
- Booze? Hell, I don't even touch the drink!
Difference Between FAA and Indian System on ‘Breath Analyser’ Test
The FAA and most other developed countries prefer conducting surprise checks for alcohol, narcotics and psychotropic substances. They'll catch you unawares with small cups you have to pee into. Humane and scientific methods separate wilful offenders from the casual user of good ol' grandma's cough medicine. Here, they plant size-8 boots on your backside and send you home.
In the Indian system, even teetotalers have been grounded for three months; enough to motivate a healthy pilot to switch careers. Today we have just 300 civil helicopters in India.
The US has over 12,000. Pilots don't come cheap or easy. Nor are they all teetotalers or habitual drinkers. Such a system places undue burden on NSOPs and is bound to fall apart when we grow. Or worse, it’ll hamper growth.
Wait. There's more.
It is 2019. Even Regional Transport Offices (RTO) and CSD liquor canteens issue smart cards. The Indian flying licence is still a small booklet which can't survive its own validity period. The paper and print quality are such that the parchment soon fuses together and crew have to peel their own mug shot from the preceding page. Entries are hand-written, rubber-stamped, and signed in ink. This is the coveted flying licence students pay crores to earn.
The Rubber Stamp Culture
Every piece of paper that is sent for processing to the DGCA, needs to bear at least a few rubber stamps, or it will land back on your table faster than a surgical strike. Pilot logbooks have to accommodate 2-3 stamps against each entry for recurrent training, proficiency checks, IR tests etc. What are we trying to breed with this rubber-stamp approval culture?
Every time an application is submitted to DGCA, a small patch of forest dies somewhere in the world. Can this stop, and can we go paperless please?
Remember, each crew works through numerous drafts before the final is ready, stamps and all. Is this even environmentally sustainable? And to what purpose?
Death by Training
Every accident, every incident inevitably leads to another training capsule. While the importance of training can never be overemphasised in aviation, who keeps records of the net value such trainings add to the cockpit?
Dubious 'DGCA-approved' training institutes that mushroom around the countryside certainly do, milking the cash cow. An ATP-holder flying two types of helicopters has to undergo over two dozen different training sessions (flying and ground training) every year. How will small companies afford this? And who audits the contents and delivery of such training products? 'Cut-copy-paste' runs riot in many 'approved' training institutes that have their bottom line prioritised over safety of the skies.
Please have an international agency carry out a bipartisan audit and rationalise the quantum, methodology and contents of all such training.
Beyond a point, it becomes repetitive and pointless, and distracts from core areas like simulator training. In my opinion, we are already at that tipping point.
Changes Needed in Accident Investigations
Drastic changes are needed in our approach to accident/incident investigation. They need to be more scientific, thorough and timebound. Almost always, it results in a witch hunt at the lowermost level (read pilot/engineer) and looks like a cover-up job. Where’s the central database of air accidents? Why isn’t it in the public domain?
Just an example. In January 2018, a PHL Dauphin helicopter crashed into sea killing five senior DGMs of ONGC and two crew from PHL. Till date, not even a preliminary report is available for safety sentinels and accountable managers. Need I say more?
It is time to move on from aping others and set the gold standard that others will follow. We have it within us to do so and need no 'gyan' from FAA, EASA or CAA. They have the experience, we have the wisdom. We must choose wisely and take the right decisions in time. Just like we did on the Boeing 737 MAX. Even if that was an Airbus.
Lastly, don’t shoot me. I am only a messenger. Besides, I love flying!
(Author’s note: Please consult national regulations and your company’s Operations Manual for rules as applicable to the type of operation you undertake. Views are personal and do not reflect those of my employer or the industry at large.)
(Capt KP Sanjeev Kumar is a former navy test pilot and blogs at www.kaypius.com. He has flown over 24 types of fixed and rotary wing aircraft and holds a dual ATP rating on the Bell 412 and AW139 helicopters. 'Kaypius' as he is widely known in his circles, flies in the offshore oil & gas division of a leading helicopter services company. This is an opinion piece. Views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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