Former chairman of the Airports Authority of India (AAI) VP Agrawal did his bachelor’s and master’s in engineering from IIT Roorkee. He has been a member on several committees relating to development and improvement of aviation-related infrastructure in the country besides being a director on the board of Airports Council International (ACI), an international body of airport operators.

In an interview to ABHIJEET ANAND, Agrawal pointed out the challenges before AAI and issues pertaining to air navigation. Primary among them is meeting the shortage of air traffic controllers and creating a separate entity for air navigation. Excerpts:

Q: In air safety ranking, India’s position is very low. What are the steps that can be taken to improve it in terms of airport infrastructure?

A: Unfortunately, India has low air safety ranking as per ICAO and FAA while we have all the reasons to be at the top of the safety ranking. We have very strong airport operators and air navigation services which are very progressive and serious about addressing any issue. Various safety auditing agencies and Standing Committee on Civil aviation have been repeatedly harping on autonomous status for DGCA while Ministry of Civil Aviation is vacillating on this issue.

DGCA also lacks trained manpower and stability at the top. It lacks capacity and capability to recruit adequate number of inspectors due to standard governmental procedural issues. It needs freedom to structure and restructure itself from functionality point of view and be bold for reporting and compliance. I feel being directly under government control it lacks transparency and force. In comparison, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is a respected and dreaded organisation in aviation.

All operational airports are licensed and periodic inspection is done to check any deviation. Deficiencies pointed out are taken care of with full seriousness. Problem is with some legacy issues, which are difficult to address though resolution is achieved through procedures. New airports do not have such issues as care is taken at the design stage itself. However, DGCA has mandated audit to be done by independent auditors, which can bring out hidden non-compliances. Airports having strong support systems are better equipped from the aviation safety point of view. Some legacy issues are overcome by introduction of operating procedures. In general, the attitude is to be fully compliant.

Q: Do you agree that helicopters which are said to be a versatile mode of transport are not treated the way they should be in our country?

A: Yes… Helicopters and probably drones are not finding favour. Helicopter being a slow machine reduces the capacity of any busy airport, hence it is not welcomed. We need to provide separate landing areas and procedure so that conflict is avoided. In busy cities we may have to consider separate heliports or small airstrips that can accept operation of smaller planes.

At the same time, they should not be far from the city centre, otherwise the advantage is lost. However, heliport operation is not a big revenue generator, hence state subsidy becomes a must. The second most important issue is training facilities in the private sector.

It is missing altogether with the result that only retired defence officers are available while there is shortage in defence services as well. Drones are considered to be the future for time-sensitive deliveries. Technology has to enable their operation without compromising the safety of people and privacy issues.

Q: Considering that there is a huge shortage of air traffic controllers in India and this is a specialised area, what needs to be done?

A: Air Navigation Service (ANS) has done an extremely commendable job under AAI. It is placed very high in Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation (CANSO) ranking for ANS service providers. The problem has been no recruitment was done in certain years. Now large batches are being recruited and training facilities at Civil Aviation Training College (CATC), Allahabad, and at Gondia are being utilised to the hilt.

Unprecedented growth demanded more airports to become operational and watch hours being increased. Most of the bigger airports, even two-tier ones, have become operational round the clock. Resources are a little stretched at present but the ideal situation will be reached soon. Licensing of ATCOs by DGCA and corporatisation of ANS services is a long pending recommendation, which should be implemented at the earliest.

It has been done in a half-baked manner. AAI has created a directorate having DGCA oversight, which will do certification of air traffic controllers after ICAO pointed out this deficiency in its safety audit. The capacity to train ATCOs in private sector will not happen till DGCA does the licencing. It will create another channel for quality supply for AAI, defence and other ANS providers in Asia and Africa where there is shortage or lack of training facilities.

Q: Terminals are being renovated and more of them are being added so that they can handle more passengers. But according to aviation experts, it will not help until there are more runways. What is your opinion on this?

A: Traffic in India is growing at the rate of 17-18 per cent, which is the highest in the world, and the rally is expected to continue till 2035 as per the present projection. In India most airports have single runway configuration, there is no land for runway extension and parallel taxi track with the result that runway capacity gets seriously affected. Hence capacity may get limited to 15-25 million passengers at the most.

Necessarily there will be a demand for a second airport to meet the growing demand. Now airports with two-runway system have a minimum requirement of 5000 acres of land, which is difficult to identify. And then cost of land acquisition is prohibitive which includes resettlement Issues.

The situation is grim till the government goes with compulsory land acquisition as provided for the transport sector. It requires strong political will and conviction. Capacity should be created ahead of demand, otherwise demand is stifled. My advice is to start looking for second airports for every capital or industrial city for the national economy’s sake.

Q: Operations of aircraft get affected during winter every year. What needs to be done to make it smoother?

A: We cannot help it much as even enabling airports to operate in poor visibility conditions will not help. The total system capacity gets reduced in such situations, hence rescheduling is the limited answer when demand is high.

Because of worsening visibility at other airports which experience this new phenomenon, we need to equip them as well with CAT-II or CAT-III. This will help the overall situation in Indian airspace. Airports and airlines need to advice passengers from time to time and gear up facilities within terminals once passengers are stranded.

Q: The world over there is a separate entity for navigation services. But in India, Airports Authority of India looks after both airport infrastructure and navigation. Has this any bearing on the functioning of AAI?

A: Functional independence for ANS is the trend the world over. It brings more resilience and professionalism apart from raising standards and lowering charges. The AAI Board has approved it and various committees have endorsed it.

It may affect AAI in the beginning financially, but I am sure AAI will pull out of it. The still bigger aim is consolidation of ANS service providers in the region. It can extend its services beyond our political boundaries on competitive basis which is difficult while it is under the fold of AAI.

Q: What do you think about the proposed new model concession agreement, which fixes the landing and parking charges?

A: The new model concession agreement is again aligned to the trend in other parts of world. It saves airlines from nightmares and gives stability from operational costing point of view. It is a welcome move though it is less welcomed by airports as traffic risk is passed on to them. There may be difficulty in incremental capacity creation. Airports may have to look for long-term low-interest sources for funding.

Q: How will GPS Aided Geo Augmented Navigation (GAGAN), which aims at providing aircraft with the capability of seamless satellite navigation for all phases of flight, help the aviation sector?

A: GAGAN combined with Automatic Dependence Surveillance- Broadcast (ADS-B) capabilities will enhance safety for aircraft to a large extent and will also result in lowering of navigational charges. It technically enables all airports with ILS without equipment being there. Localisers which are part of Instrument Landing System (ILS) will not be required.

On board equipment to be installed in aircraft costing Rs 60 to Rs 70 lakh only will be necessary. Airlines are trying to avoid it. In my opinion use of GAGAN should be heavily subsidised in the form of reduced ANS charges for equipped aircraft with advisory that ground-based equipment like DVOR and ILS will be phased out in time-bound manner.