One fine morning, pretending to be an unemployed pilot looking for a job, Tehelka contacted Suresh Kumar Lamba, private secretary to O/o director, ministry of civil aviation. Edited excerpts from the conversation…
Tehelka: Hello sir, kaise hain? (How are you?)
Suresh Kumar Lamba: Badiya. Aap sunao kuch nayi taazi (I’m good. What’s new?)
Tehelka: Kuch nahin, sir. Aap bataiye (Nothing much. You tell me).
Lamba: Kya hua Jet ka? Aapne exam dee thee… (What happened to the Jet exam?)
Tehelka: Abhi tak result nahin aaya. Pichle baar written toh clear ho gaya tha, par interview main nahi hua (The result is not out yet. Earlier, I had cleared the written exam, but couldn’t clear the interview).
Lamba: Apni details bhejna mujhe. Agar pehle exam diya hua hai toh kahin baar consider kar lete hain kisi ko approach karne pe (Send me your details. They do consider candidates who have appeared earlier if the approach is made through some source).
Tehelka: SpiceJet ya IndiGo main kuch jugaad hai kya? (Do you any connection in SpiceJet or IndiGo?)
Lamba: IndiGo main apply kiya hai? Ek question bank aaya hai mere pass. Kisi ne bheja tha. Mujhe kaha tha ki agar tumhara koi baccha padhne wala ho toh de dena… bhejta hoon aapko. Isi main se aayenge (Have you applied with IndiGo? Somebody has sent me a question bank. I will forward it to you).
Tehelka: Question bank toh mera paas bhi hai, sir. Naukri ka kuch karwaiye. Written paas hone ke baad kuch jugaad hai kya aapka? (I also have the question bank. Please do something about my job. Do you have any connection?)
Lamba: Haan, jugaad toh hai (Yes, I do).
Tehelka: Kitne lagenge? (How much will it cost?)
Lamba: Woh main aapko batata hoon (I will let you know).
Tehelka: Ek andaz bata dijiye. Koi bol raha tha 20 tak ho jaayega (Give me an estimate. Somebody was saying 20 [lakh]).
Lamba: I will let you know, par kaam chahe jisese bhi karwao, humse karwao ya kisi aur se, paise kaam ke baad hee dena, varna phas jaayenge. Rate main bata doonga, first you have to clear the written (I will let you know. Get it done though me or anyone else, but don’t give the money before your work gets done. I will tell you the rate once you clear the written exam).
Tehelka: Accha sir. Licence conversion bhi karana ek dost ka. Ek week main ho jaayega? (I’d like to convert the licence of a friend. Can it be done within a week?)
Lamba: Ho jaayega, but rates badal gaye hain. Pehle 20,000 main ho jaata tha. Ab naye bande aa gaye toh rates badal jaayenge. Time… time ki baat hai (I will get it done. Earlier, it used to happen for 20,000, but now the rates have changed as the new guys have come).
Another day, posing as another candidate, Tehelka contacted him again…
Tehelka: Hello sir.
Lamba: Haan. Boliye kya kaam hai? (What do you want?)
Tehelka: Sir, zara recruitment ke baare main baat karni thee… IndiGo ke liye… (I’d like to talk to you regarding recruitment in IndiGo).
Lamba: Air India mai bhi vacany nikli hai. Usme apply karo (There is a vacancy at Air India. Apply there).
Tehelka: Ok, sir. But sir, aap bhi jaante hain na ki bina pehchaan ke nahi hota, aap agar karwa sakte hai toh bataiye (But you also know that without connection it will not happen. Can you get it done?)
Lamba: Haan haan. Ho jaayega. Usme aap apply kar do. Apply toh har jagah karna chahiye. Aapne IndiGo ka paper diya tha? (Yes, it can be done. You have to apply everywhere. Have you applied with IndiGo?)
Tehelka: Diya tha, sir (Yes).
Lamba: Paper toh suna hai aassan tha. Dekho written main toh no one will help you. Result aane par kuch ho sakta hai (I heard that the paper was easy. But no one will help you in written. I can try once the result is out).
Tehelka: Sir, aap bhi jaante hai ki kuch kuch incidents toh aise hote hain ki logon ka naam list main hota nahi hai phir bhi select ho jaate hain (Many a time, people get the job even when their names are not on the list).
Tehelka: Sir, kuch karwa sakte hain toh bataiye aur amount bata dijiye (If you can help then let me know about the amount).
Lamba: Result aaney do, phir baat kartey hai (Let the result come, then we will talk).
Tehelka: Amount bata dijiye… 20-30? Kitna? (Please tell me abut the amount. 20-30? How much?)
Lamba: 20 tak ho jaayega. Jitna minimum ho jaaye, but abhi I can’t tell you anything. Saamne wala kya chahta ahi, woh sab kaam lene par he pata chalega(Around 20 [lakh]. We will try to keep it at the minimum. Let’s see what the other person quotes).
Tehelka: Ho jaayega kya, sir? (Can you get it done?)
Lamba: Simple si baat hai. Setting honi chahiye… ho jaayega. 20 ke aas paas ho jaayega… 20 se 30 tak (It’s a matter of influence… It will get done. Probably for 20 [lakh]. Between 20 and 30).
In 2011, a big hue and cry was raised when news got out that many candidates had used forged documents to acquire commercial pilot licences. Apparently stung by the report, the civil aviation launched a probe and suspended many licences. However, it has come to light that some of those involved in the fake licence scam are very much in business.
Believe it or not. A pilot arrested in 2011 by the crime branch of the Delhi Police for acting as a middleman in providing fake airline transport pilot licences (APTL) to other pilots was recruited by Air India Express in 2013 and is currently flying.
This is by no means an isolated case. Another pilot who allegedly obtained a fake licence with the help of her father, who was the then director of air safety in the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), and was suspended by SpiceJet after her fraud was caught, is now working for Air India Express (she is currently serving her notice period before joining IndiGo).
Both top carriers and the DGCA seem to be a hub for people who are involved in high-end corruption. Yet, instead of being punished, they seem to be thriving in their jobs. While these privileged people enjoy their high-flying lives, there are many aspiring pilots who, despite having proved their mettle in flying, are unable to get a job as they lack money and influence.
This is the story about corruption in the aviation sector, right from flight training to securing a job in the airline industry.
Smartly clad in black and white, pilots continue to turn heads and receive envious glances in every airport of the world. But behind the facade is an ugly truth. Many of the pilots allegedly earned their wings by forging documents and paying bribes.
Some captains face criminal cases, while others were found to be too incompetent to fly. But in spite of all such hurdles, they are still flying. Although India has produced many excellent aviators, the fact cannot be denied that a sizeable number of pilots are involved in malpractices with the help of the airlines and the DGCA . Welcome to the world of Indian aviation, where everything is possible if you have the money or clout.
In January 2011, technicians found a snag in the nose gear of an IndiGo aircraft. It was later discovered that one of the pilots, Capt Parminder Kaur Gulati, was in the habit of landing the plane by touching down on the nose gear instead of the main gear.
When an inquiry was launched, it was revealed that Gulati had obtained her APTL by using forged documents as she couldn’t clear her exams even after attempting them on seven occasions. After this, a whole scam broke out, which revealed the nexus between pilots, middlemen and DGCA officials. More than 20 people were arrested by the crime branch of the Delhi Police.
According to the information available with Tehelka, Air India Express hired one of the pilots involved in the scam — Capt Deepak Asatkar, who is currently flying as a first officer based out of Kochi. Asatkar used to help pilots in acquiring fake licences with the help of Capt Pradeep Tyagi.
After the scam came to light, Asatkar went absconding for six months and was arrested by the Delhi Police crime branch on 2 September 2011.
As per police documents, Asatkar, a native of Madhya Pradesh residing in Mumbai, enrolled himself with the DGCA. By 2007, he had cleared all three (air navigation, aviation meteorology and air regulation) DGCA examinations required to obtain a commercial pilot licence (CPL) and joined Orlando Flying School in the US to complete his required 250 hours of flight training.
FOREIGN HAND IN THE SKY
For how long will policy myopia give reprieve to airlines from employing expat pilots, asks Pradyot Lal
Only the other day, Mahesh Sharma, the minister of state for civil aviation, told the Rajya Sabha that the Central government is not planning to hire foreign pilots even when there is a felt and urgent need for about 200 personnel.
The rulebook may be clear about phasing them out, but necessity is forcing the country to back down on the bar on foreign pilots.
That is one convenient way to look at the complicated picture. More germane perhaps is the fact that the CBI is currently probing specific cases of hiring of foreign pilots for Air India through empanelled agencies, which are not in tandem with the airline and siphon off a large amount of money with the help of the bureaucracy.
The inquest has been launched two years after Yashwant Shenoy, a self-proclaimed public-spirited individual, lodged a complaint regarding the racket.
At a time when India is facing a severe shortage of homegrown pilots, it was admitted in Parliament six months ago that as many as 277 foreign pilots are employed by various airlines in the country. According to official figures, Jet Airways employs the most number of foreign pilots (121), followed by IndiGo (45). As many as 74 expat pilots work for non-scheduled carriers.
It was admitted that there is an endemic and recurrent shortage of commanders (pilots or pilots-in-command). The reasons are twofold: the growth in the aviation industry and the induction of new aircrafts. Willy nilly, action plans to make up for this deficiency are officially made to cover the shortage of pilots and validation of foreign pilots is done as per rule 45 of the Aircraft Rules, 1937.
Homegrown pilots, who are inducted into airlines and are eligible to become pilots in command (pic) as per the policy of the airlines, are being trained to eventually take over from pilots. As a follow up, cases of Foreign Aircrew Temporary Authorisation (FATA) pilots are processed on the basis of information furnished by each airline with the phase-out programme of expat pilots.
According to aviation sources, the government has restricted the issue of FATA up to 31 December 2016.
Expat pilots are an expensive choice: they are paid some 40 percent more than locals, have tax-free salaries and enjoy a four-month holiday every year.
All this breeds heartburn and disaffection among homegrown pilots even when it is a fact that some 60 percent of them flaunt degrees from foreign institutes.
The number of foreign pilots employed by the Indian aviation industry keeps varying, given the differing financials of the carriers.
Part of the salary paid to foreign pilots is typically in dollars. With the weakening of the rupee, the expense of employing foreign pilots has swelled. That has added to the pressure on the carriers at a time when other costs such as fuel and airport charges have also climbed. Not surprisingly, most Indian carriers are in the red.
However, the complete replacement of foreign pilots with local hires is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Airlines are continuing to employ foreigners because there is a shortage of locally trained senior pilots, and with certain specific airlines rooting for foreign pilots, the situation is quite complicated on the ground.
The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) had set a deadline for airlines to phase out all expat pilots by the end of 2013, extending an earlier deadline of the end of 2010, but those deadlines have come and gone.
Insiders say that it will be impossible for Indian carriers to meet the DGCA’s deadline, unless airlines cut their flights and ground some planes, because of the lack of trained local pilots. He said the foreign pilots employed by Jet have flying experience of at least five years. Some Indian pilots are employed as co-pilots as several hours of flying experience are required to become a commander of a passenger flight. He said that the phasing out of foreign pilots will take at least a couple of years as local pilots gain the necessary experience.
The civil aviation ministry almost mechanically keeps extending deadlines for phasing out foreign pilots, with airlines unable to train a sufficient number of locals for the commander’s post. The move, in turn, benefits carriers such as Jet Airways, which usually hire about 70 foreign pilots for its fleet of Boeing 777s.
In fact, the situation is so dire that Jet Airways plans to wet-lease foreign pilots from Turkish Airlines for a year. The airline had reduced the number of foreign pilots on its rolls and terminated their contracts before the end of term to save costs. The principle behind hiring foreign pilots was that there is a shortage of homegrown commanders. But as many have pointed out, there are so many Kingfisher pilots without work. Why then is the need to hire more foreign pilots?
The huge dichotomy is that there is no clear-cut policy on the issue. There are hundreds of Indian pilots who are unemployed and their interests are not protected. There have been many heart-rending stories of how a promising career of a pilot has not taken off given the vagaries of the market, but the induction of new aircraft and new technology and the sheer growth of the aviation sector negates subjective pulls and pressures.
In 2009, he submitted his Federal Aviation Administration CPL licence to the DGCA to convert it into an Indian CPL (in order to fly in India, one should have an Indian CPL) but was unable to get his licence even after two months. During this period, he came in contact with Tyagi, a middleman who helped Asatkar acquire his converted licence. Tyagi had close links with DGCA official Pradeep Sharma, who used to work in the Directorate of Training and Licence.
Later, Asatkar started working as a middleman along with Tyagi and helped students (who had failed to clear their exams) in obtaining CPL and ATPL with contacts in the DGCA. While teaching at Flywings Aviation Academy in Mumbai, he came in contact with two pilots and helped them in acquiring ATPLs. Asatkar earned Rs 5.5 lakh from the deal, while Tyagi got Rs 13 lakh.
“Asatkar is an intelligent chap who was well-versed with flying subjects,” says a source in the aviation industry. “He has cleared all the DGCA exams by fair means, but became a middleman because of corruption in the DGCA and later got arrested.”
Adds Inspector R Srinivasan of the crime branch, “We have investigated the fake licence case and submitted the chargesheet in the Saket court. The case is now pending in the court.”
Srinivasan adds that Asatkar and Tyagi, along with the others arrested, have been charged under Sections 120B (punishment of criminal conspiracy), 420 (cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property), 421 (dishonest or fraudulent removal or concealment of property to prevent distribution among creditors) of the Indian Penal Code.
While Asatkar was arrested on 2 September 2011, records show that he was found eligible to appear for a written test the very next year, following which he was selected by Air India Express and is currently flying the new-generation Boeing 737-800 NG.
When Tehelka contacted Asatkar, this is what he had to say, “I had been falsely implicated in the case of helping pilots obtain licences by unfair means and I have been cleared. I didn’t have any involvement in it. In fact, I used to tutor aviation students in Mumbai and some of them were involved in the case.”
Asatkar promised to provide the clearance document to Tehelka, but we haven’t received anything at the time of going to press.
Another pilot facing charges of obtaining a licence through unfair means is Garima Passi. Despite knowing that SpiceJet has suspended her, Air India Express went on to hire her. After all, she is the daughter of RS Passi, deputy director (air safety) Air Accident Investigation Bureau attached with the civil aviation ministry.
According to information available with Tehelka, Garima is working as a first officer in Air India Express based out of Kochi. She has reportedly joined IndiGo and is serving her notice period with Air India Express.
If one goes by her track record, Garima was found by her flight instructors to be incompetent to fly even single-engine aircraft. However, she is busy flying Boeing 737-800 aircraft with Air India Express.
Paasi was trained at the Sabena Flight Academy in Arizona, US, under the SpiceJet cadet pilot programme in 2008. Due to her incompetent skills, she was kicked out of the academy. She had a record of two landing incidents, including a nose gear damage and a propeller strike. As per the assessment of her two flight instructors, she was inconsistent in flying and was recommended “to stop her flying”. Her instructors also observed that she was not confident to act as a pilot in command and has a fear of aircraft.
After leaving the Sabena Flight Academy, she returned to India and joined Amber Aviation, a flying club based in Pantnagar, Uttarakhand. She completed her training and got her CPL in 2009 and joined SpiceJet as a trainee co-pilot in the same year.
According to DGCA rules, while applying for the issuance or conversion of a CPL, one has to mention cases of accidents or incidents he/she has been involved with in the preceding five years with the details of disciplinary action taken against him/her. But it seems Garima hadn’t mentioned the two landing incidents during her training in the US to the DGCA. In 2011, when it came to light that she has obtained her licence by fraudulent means, she was grounded by SpiceJet, leading to her resignation.
For many, this would mean the end of their flying career, but not for Garima who had both money and influence. Her father, the then director (air safety) in the DGCA, also came under the scanner. Passi was removed from his post after allegations that he had misused his official position to get a job for his daughter.
According to media reports, the then DGCA chief EK Bharat Bhushan removed Passi after he received a letter to his query on the employment of Garima from SpiceJet. The letter stated that Garima had got the job under “extraordinary circumstances”.
Another pilot whose resourceful father’s name came under the scanner for alleged malpractices is Capt Rashmi Sharan, currently working with IndiGo. Her father Alok Kumar Sharan, the former joint director of the DGCA, retired in January.
It is alleged that Sharan granted approval to a flight training school that did not even have a single aircraft at that time and also got his daughter’s flying completed there afterwards.
Sharan gave approval to Raipur-based Touchwood Aviation in 2007. At that time, he was the deputy director (training and licensing). According to DGCA rules, a flying club can only get approval for training to CPL students if it has three serviceable aircrafts. But according to the inspection report filed by an official of the Aerodrome Standard, Touchwood Aviation did not have a single aircraft and lacked facilities such as a briefing room and aircraft hangar that are required for students.
Rashmi completed her flight training from Touchwood Aviation in 2008. The institute was shut down a year later.
Sharan was also alleged of arranging three sessions of special examinations for his daughter by unfair means. Rashmi was unable to clear the papers on air navigation, aviation meteorology and aircraft technical even in five regular attempts, after which special exams were arranged for her. The regular
exams are held every three months, whereas the special exam can be organised on short intervals by requesting the DGCA.
As per the DGCA rules, a candidate can request for special exams from the regulator only if his/her flying hours are getting lapsed or if the candidate may miss out on a job opportunity because only one of his/her papers are back. In 2007, when Rashmi appeared for her first special exam, she had neither cleared three of her papers nor completed the required number of flying hours.
“According to the DGCA time table, regular exams are held every three months,” says an aviation source on the condition of anonymity. “Normally, the cooling period after an exam is six weeks. But these are often overlooked for people with connections in the DGCA. It is easy to pass in special exams as the number of candidates is very few (5-10) and the invigilators don’t keep a tab on them. The practice of cheating is rampant in such exams, so it becomes easy for them to pass.”
Sharan was suspended in March 2012 for allegedly giving undue favours to 28 flying schools and causing a loss of 190 crore to the exchequer in his capacity as deputy director (training and licensing), who is responsible for granting approval to flying schools. But he was reinstated in August 2012. Last year, the CBI filed a case against him for giving extension to a Bilaspur-based flying club on the basis of inappropriate documents. However, he was given a clean chit.
In order to stop these malpractices, the then DGCA director Bhushan started the practice of special exams and started online pilot exams in 2011.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF FAY-DOHERTY
Michael James Fay-Doherty was one of the many expat pilots who came to India looking for a job at the height of the aviation boom in 2007, hoping perhaps that his criminal record and forged papers would go undetected by the understaffed aviation regulator when passenger traffic had surged and pilots were in short supply.
Fay-Doherty wasn’t far off the mark. By the time the American pilot’s false credentials were discovered and he left the country, he had already flown for six months with IndiGo, the country’s largest low-cost airline.
Three years ago, while investigating a flawed landing technique used by another IndiGo pilot, Parminder Kaur Gulati, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) discovered that she had produced a fictitious marksheet to obtain her commander’s licence.
The DGCA then started scanning all the 4,500 pilot licences it had issued in the past five years. In the ensuing crackdown, the crime branch of the Delhi Police detained 22 people, including pilots, trainers and DGCA officials. The last word hasn’t been heard yet on these cases.
As investigations proceed, some aviation experts are asking if checks are being sidestepped in hiring procedures, in the process compromising air safety, even as airlines prepare for a new boom in passenger traffic.
Carriers such as Air India, Jet Airways, IndiGo, Go Air and SpiceJet have ordered 534 planes worth $40 billion, many of which will be delivered in the next five years.
As a result, the airlines will require 5,000 pilots, including 1,200 expatriates, to keep the fleet in the air, executives told the DGCA last year.
India’s domestic and international passenger traffic is expected to grow threefold from 142 million in 2010 to 450 million by 2020, making it the world’s third biggest aviation market, according to the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, a consultancy firm.
For the safety and security of Indian aviation, it is vital that the Fay-Doherty experience doesn’t recur, though foreign pilots remain critical to fuel the airline industry’s growth.
Expatriate pilots aren’t given Indian licences; their foreign licences are supposed to be validated by their employers so that they can fly in India.
Fay-Doherty, with a licence (No. 2129236) issued by the US regulator Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), landed a job at IndiGo in May 2007 through the UK-based recruitment agency AeroProfessional Ltd. He was quick to seek a promotion citing his purported experience, backed by FAA certificates.
A chance email exchange between the FAA and IndiGo executives showed that his documents had been forged. According to sources, he was fired in October 2007 after he failed to reply to a show-cause notice. He had informed the airline that he would need time to respond to the show-cause notice and was resigning. He was “not traceable” after that, according to an internal note.
Back in the US, the FAA traced Fay-Doherty. He was punished and currently holds no legal flying certificates.
IndiGo conceded that the pilot had managed to skirt its checks. “Our team validates each document thoroughly before submitting the same to the DGCA for its clearance,” said IndiGo president Aditya Ghosh in an email reply. “The DGCA, in turn, validates the credentials and permits the pilot to operate in Indian skies. (As for) Michael James Fay-Doherty, all the requisite documents and licences were checked and validated before offering him a job… Whilst he was still employed with the company, the background check on antecedents continued. We received a mail from the FAA on his credentials. Once we got into the contents, the pilot was issued a show-cause notice and put off flying duties. Subsequent to which his contract was terminated on the grounds of veracity of particulars submitted.”
Only, until he resigned, Fay-Doherty continued to fly. It could not be ascertained how many flights he had flown, but the typical IndiGo pilot flies 85-90 hours a month, which could translate into 40-50 flights.
The Fay-Doherty episode had raised questions on how an individual skirted scrutiny in a country where hundreds of expat pilots are currently employed with airlines.
“It exposes the nexus between the airlines and the DGCA, the agencies that supply (pilots) without background checks and the criminal negligence in furnishing false information to the home ministry,” says aviation safety expert Mohan Ranganathan. “Are our regulators willing to bite the bullet and kick the fakes out?”
The DGCA grants the Foreign Aircrew Temporary Authorisation in line with a standard process. All airlines work with different pilot recruitment agencies worldwide to source expat pilots and forward a list of eligible fliers to the DGCA with five forms, licences and a passport, after which the DGCA sends the documentation to the home ministry for background checks on the person.
The problem is that there is no cross-verification of expat licences by the DGCA with the regulator of the country where the licence was originally granted. The onus of doing this is on the airline, except that foreign government regulators typically do not reply to correspondence sent by airlines as a matter of protocol.
Expat pilots will continue to be critical to the airline industry’s growth, otherwise planes will need to be grounded, warns the CEO of a private airline.
The story of Yashraj Tongia and his Yash Air Flying School is also quite interesting. Any young or old pilot who is even a little bit aware about the Indian aviation industry knows of Yash Air Flying School in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh. In fact, Bollywood star Sohail Khan took his flying lessons from there. In its website, the school claims to be the largest flying academy in India.
On 19 May 2010, two persons undergoing training at Yash Air Flying School (one was an aspiring flight instructor and the other was a trainee pilot) died in a crash after their Cessna-152 hit a high-tension wire and crashed into a dry riverbed in Ujjain.
According to the DGCA accident investigation report, the probable cause of the accident was low flying and the contributory factors were no monitoring of flying activity and ineffective supervision. It was also mentioned in the report that “there was no information from the academy to the regional air safety office”. In fact, the regional office tried to contact the chief flight instructor (Tongia) but he was not available on phone. The first communication in person with the chief flight instructor was established on 20 May 2010, and that too only after the arrival of the DGCA representative at the crash site.
A DGCA audit report filed in August 2010 also mentions that Yash Air Flying School furnished false information to the DGCA regarding its licence. The DGCA report asked for a detailed inspection of the flying club, including their records, facilities, efficiency of flight instructors to teach students, etc. Some students also filed cases, alleging that Tongia had fabricated documents while giving them licences and had duped them of their money.
The biggest irony was that the chief flight instructor (Tongia) of the academy was appointed as the director of flying training, DGCA, by the Union Public Service Commission in June 2012. In fact, Tongia’s appointment was recommended in 2011, but the process was delayed. Later, he appealed to the Central Administrative Tribunal, which cleared his appointment.
The director of flying training is a post of high importance as the person is responsible for maintaining flight standard at flying schools. It is important to note that Tongia was appointed at this post despite the fact that civil aviation ministry wanted to get him scrutinised by the Intelligence Bureau.
According to the information available with Tehelka, Tongia was terminated by the DGCA five months ago. But it is important to note that he retained his post without getting a security clearance from the Intelligence Bureau and the home ministry for around two and a half years.
“Neither the IB nor the home ministry gave a security clearance to Tongia because of the gross financial irregularities that he committed at the Madhya Pradesh Flying School and Udan Flying School, both located in Indore,” says Indore-based journalist Ghanshyam Patel, who specialises in cases of aviation irregularities. “His Yash Air Flying School was not supposed to get an affiliation because of these financial irregularities, but he somehow managed to get it. This is a clear case of conflict of interest as he was holding the post of director (flying training) at the DGCA as well was looking after the flying club. Recently, Tongia’s file came under scrutiny and he was terminated.”
Patel claims that according to DGCA records, Tongia’s flying skills are below average during a test conducted by the regulator. “His flying skills were below an average CPL holder, but still he retained the post of director of flying training,” says Patel. “The DGCA is hand in glove with Tongia. Otherwise how can he retain his position for such a long period?”
Adds a retired Air India pilot on the condition of anonymity, “Tongia was facing more than 1,000 cases, but he still became the director of flying training. His students had filed cases against him at the Indore and Lucknow High Courts, which have moved to the Supreme Court.”
On the cases of Garima Passi and Rashmi Sharan, he adds, “These kids got licences with the help of their fathers. On paper, Rashmi has cleared the DGCA exam, so she cannot be withdrawn. Same is the case of Garima who got her licence by unfair means and is still flying.”
When contacted, Air India Express Chief Operating Officer Capt Pushpendra Singh said, “I was not the COO at that time (of hiring) and was not aware about their recruitment.” He passed the buck saying the “corporate communication department will give the answer”. But Tehelka is yet to receive any word.
Questioned about the cases against him, AK Sharan said, “I was neither in charge of the examination nor do I have any authority over the process. I didn’t give any permission for the special exams. For example, if my nephew is appearing for the IAS exam, who am I to give him the permission? I am not the authority.”
When asked about giving permission to the ill-equipped flying club (Touchwood Aviation), he said, “It’s common sense that no flying can be conducted without any aircraft.”
Later, he got angry and said, “You are on the side of my enemies. You are also part of their game plan. I was eligible to become the DGCA director but my enemies conspired against me because they didn’t wanted me to become the director.”
Tehelka made repeated attempts to contact Garima but she didn’t respond.
When asked about the recruitment of Garima Passi and Rashmi Sharan, this is what IndiGo had to say, “In the recruitment of CPL holders, the operator has no wherewithal to verify the authenticity of the licence issued by the regulatory authority (DGCA). As an operator, we ensure that the validity and currency of various licence endorsements are maintained in conformity to the regulatory requirements. In case the license is endorsed with suspension of any nature, the management team reflects on the nature of the suspension and drills deep into the causes before taking a call on hiring the pilot. After this document verification, we subject the pilot to a check in the simulator not only to assess his/her flying skills but his/her decision-making capability, the CRM (crew resource management) and communication skills. A reference check is also carried out at the same time with his/her previous employer. In most cases, the previous employer responds. If not, the candidate needs to furnish the names of two references who are associated with the airline business and a background check is initiated.”
In 2005-06, when the Indian aviation industry witnessed a boom with an increase in passenger traffic and the entry of new airlines, many youth dreamt of becoming pilots. Irrespective of their financial limitations, youngsters started enrolling in expensive flying programmes. During that period, even those who had cleared his/her DGCA examination without completing the requisite flying hours used to get calls for jobs from airlines. But gradually the scene changed. As it happens, the demand-supply ratio tipping in the wrong direction resulted in all sorts of corruption in the aviation sector. While many excellent pilots could never realise their dreams of flying, those who had mediocre flying skills but had the influence to force their way in, got placed.
An agent named Gaurav Pathak duped many pilots on the pretext of getting them jobs. A former employee in the HR department of Kingfisher Airlines, Pathak joined Chennai-based Volk Airlines, which never got airborne. In 2013, trainee pilot Yash Vithlani filed a case against Pathak in Pune, claiming that Pathak had duped him of Rs 10 lakh after promising him a job in Volk Airlines.
After clearing the written test and two rounds of interviews, Vithlani was asked to cough up Rs 25 lakh. Vithlani even got a letter from Volk Airlines saying that he had been selected as an Airbus 320 trainee co-pilot. When he failed to receive any further communication, he called up Pathak, who asked him about the money. After bargaining, Vithlani agreed to pay Rs 10 lakh for the job. However, Pathak went absconding after the transaction.
Vithlani is not the only one who was duped by Pathak. Tehelka met two pilots in Pune who fell for the same con. One trainee pilot was duped of Rs 3 lakh, while the other was relieved of Rs 4.5 lakh. However, one of them managed to get back his money by using forceful means.
“Taking money for jobs has become a trend in the industry,” says a first officer of a low-cost airline. “The amount ranges from Rs 20 lakh to Rs 35 lakh.”
“There are other airlines that promote unfair practices,” says a Jet Airwayscommander on the condition of anonymity. “They have an unofficial one-plus-one offer — if a commander joins the airline, they will also give a job to his son, daughter or brother if he or she is a pilot.”
As a result, pilots without influence end up losing out. For example, this is what happened with Go Air in 2014. “The company had received specific information of prima facie unethical and improper activity that suggested potentially serious malpractices and lapses in the recruitment process in some areas of operations within the company,” says an internal memo. The company decided to temporarily suspend some employees in flight operations for a “free and fair” trial. It is to be noted that Go Air suspended Puneet Shankta, director of flight operations, due to allegations of favoritism and unfair practices in recruiting pilots.
The candidates who had been selected were told later that the recruitment process had been cancelled. “The written exam was held on 20 December 2013 and the result came out on 31 October 2014,” says a candidate. “Forty candidates were invited for the next round. Go Air asked us to do a recency (renewal) of type rating (Airbus A320). Most of us went abroad and did our recency, which costs at least Rs 2 lakh (it ranges from Rs 2 lakh to Rs 6 lakh, depending on the time lapse). One day, we were informed that the recruitment process has been scrapped. What was our fault? These airline officials themselves indulged in malpractices and recruited their own people and when they got caught, people like us had to suffer.”
Chennai-based aviation safety analyst Capt Mohan Ranganathan, who was a member of the Civil Aviation Safety Advisory Council, throws some light on how the regulatory body kept a lid on the 2011 recruitment scam.
“The recruitment scam in Air India Express was swept under the carpet during the UPA regime,” he says. “Even the fake licence scam was hushed up. They took action against 15 persons or so but there was a cover up in the rest of the cases. One of those punished was an instructor at a Nagpur-based flying club. Her own proficiency assessment by a DGCA flight operations inspector is a farce considering the fact that she had only 20 hours of experience and had fudged her rest. The DGCA knew all about this but looked the other way in order to protect its flight operations inspector. The DGCA does not verify criminal records. Many appointments are made purely on the basis of influence. If the DGCA took action against all those pilots with fake licences, hundreds would have been grounded. That would have affected many airline companies. As a result, the DGCA hushed everything up.
“In Garima’s case, Air India Express was aware of her record. Yet, going by the poor safety standards of the carrier and sustained violations of safety norms and training, they hired her in a bid to neutralise her father, RS Passi (who was then with the DGCA.”
Talking about former DGCA joint director AK Sharan and his daughter’s employment in IndiGo, he says, “The number of people in the DGCA who have a conflict of interest is one of the main reasons why safety standards are so poor in India. The civil aviation ministry is aware that the children of many bureaucrats, who occupy top positions in the DGCA , are employed by various airlines. It costs almost Rs 50 lakh to get a CPL and an A320/737 endorsement before joining. If you think that a person who earns around
Rs 45,000 per month can afford this, then you are naive. Airlines employ them and probably underwrite the cost of training, while the DGCA officials look the other way when the airlines take shortcuts.”
Commenting on the Tongia case, he says, “In India, the criteria has never been what you know and how qualified you are. It has always been based on whom you know and how high your connections are.
“The DGCA has no standards. Babus from the civil aviation ministry are routinely appointed as heads of every aviation organisation in India. They even go to ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation) as Indian representatives and come back after three years. The fact that blatant violations of the ICAO rules have been taking place for several years show that they have not even learned the basics of ICAO SARPs (standard and recommending practices) and safety standards.”
Adds Capt Sanjay Singh, an instructor based in Florida, who had earlier worked for Jet Airways: “It is evident that the rapid growth of the aviation industry has resulted in widespread corruption. Obtaining licences by unfair means and getting hired with the help of influence show the pathetic state of the DGCA. This shows the lack of respect towards the regulator. The international aviation community lost faith in the DGCA. India’s aviation sector is unsafe because most of the pilots are under-trained. It is just a matter of time before something unfortunate happens.”
But in the game of big money and influence, it is the honest youth who suffer the most. “We dream of becoming pilots and undergo rigorous training,” says an aspiring pilot on the condition of anonymity. “We burn the midnight oil to clear our exams. Yet, when the results come out, our names are not on the list. We are not asking for preferential treatment. All that we are asking for is a fair chance.”
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