Flight Plan

Buckle up, is the message to Indian aviation

Ashwini Phadnis | Updated on September 29, 2020 Published on September 29, 2020

Recent amendments in law require airlines to tighten vigilance and diligence levels for operations. The penalties have just got stiffer. Ashwini Phadnis reports

The Aircraft Amendment Bill that was passed by the Rajya Sabha this month is being seen by many as a path-breaking change in Indian aviation. The Bill was passed by the Lok Sabha earlier.

The amendments to the 1934 Aircraft Act give the three agencies that look after aviation in India — the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS), the Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau (AAIB) and the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) — statutory status. At the moment, these three come under the Ministry of Civil Aviation.

BCAS lays down aviation security standards in accordance with the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s (ICAO) Chicago Convention for airport operators, airline operators and their security agencies responsible for implementing aviation security measures.

AAIB has been set up to conduct independent aircraft accident investigations and DGCA is a regulatory body primarily dealing with safety issues. It is responsible for regulating air transport services/to/from/within India. It also coordinates all regulatory functions with ICAO.

The amendments have also increased, manifold, the fines that can be imposed for flouting the law, for airlines and passengers.

Industry watchers maintain that the Bill is a result of the recommendations made by ICAO in its last audit, which suggested giving proper recognition to regulators such as DGCA and also enhancing the current quantum of fines and empowering the officers to impose financial penalties on individuals or organisations to ensure that they are fulfilling their safety and security obligations. These recommendations were perhaps based on the spike in the number of air safety violations or breaches over the last few years in India.

Quicker decision-making

Divya Chaturvedi, Partner, Khaitan & Co, feels the proposed amendments to the Act are definitely a positive step towards improving India’s stature in the global aviation community, at par with other developed nations.

The amendments are also being interpreted to mean that BCAS and AAIB will no longer be extended arms of the Central government but can initiate enquiries independently and that these authorities will have adequate powers to exercise their functions.

“As statutory authorities with specific and demarcated functions, the paramount issue of air safety and security of the passengers is likely to improve, which will impact India’s stature in the global aviation community,” Chaturvedi points out.

Others feel that DGCA, BCAS and AAIB becoming independent statutory bodies will help the decision-making process to become more fluid and efficient. Says Petrushka Dasgupta, Partner, IndusLaw, “One can expect quicker resolutions to the issues pertaining to the aviation industry.”

Stringent punishment

For others, it is the increase in penalties that is more important. According to Anubha Singh, Advocate, Innovatus Law, the increase in penalty for contravention of aviation laws and rules seeks to further deter violation of the laws. For example, carrying arms, ammunition, and explosives or other banned goods on board, and developing illegal construction around the airports will attract fines up to ₹1 crore.

Some others also believe that the amendments empower DGCA to take stricter action against contravention of the prevailing Act and rules. For instance, if an incident like what happened on a recent IndiGo flight between Chandigarh and Mumbai — on which people were seen crowding around Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut — were to happen again, the airline will be fined a lot more.

In this instance, IndiGo was just given a warning by DGCA for not maintaining social distancing on the flight. “Violation of rules notified under the Aircraft Act now attract penalty of a sum up to ₹1 crore compared to ₹10 lakh earlier. Penalty can be granted over and above the imprisonment, which is up to two years,” says Singh.

Impact on airlines

Needless to say, the maximum impact of the amendments is going to be felt by the airlines.

According to Chaturvedi, airlines will definitely be impacted by the proposed amendments to the Act as their vigilance and diligence levels for operations will need to be tightened because of the severe penal provisions — including cancellation of licences — that are proposed to be introduced. Airlines will need to upgrade their compliance systems at various levels and also ensure upskilling of the existing personnel to function within the regulatory framework and to avoid any kind of scrutiny.

According to others, airlines will be left with no choice but to become more vigilant about their operations as scrutiny by various authorities will not only add to pressures to an airline’s day-to-day operations but also tarnish its reputation.

All these amendments are, however, likely to have a minimal impact on flyers. But they will need to adhere to the stricter norms that airlines will impose. At the same time, the Bill also provides for a larger financial penalty for passengers who carry arms, explosives or other dangerous substances, or who furnish false information regarding the carriage of such goods.

A word of caution

Even though the amendments are being seen as positive and progressive, there is also a word of caution from the experts. According to Chaturvedi, frequent interventions by the Central government may become an obstacle in the independent, smooth and efficient functioning of the three statutory bodies.

“Additionally, while a mechanism and time frame for appealing against the orders of the designated officers imposing a penalty has been put in place, an independent appellate body comprising members with the expertise of civil aviation, security and law under the Act also needs to set up/established to ensure a timely and fairer dispensation of justice,” she adds.

 

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Published on September 29, 2020
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