Friday, August 12, 2022

Why is the aircraft maintenance sector in dire straits?

Against the backdrop of a spate of emergency landings this year, the government told the Parliament on August 1 that airlines have reported 478 technical snags between July 1, 2021 and June 30 this year.

The recent incidents also forced the Directorate General of Civil Aviation or DGCA to direct SpiceJet to reduce its flights by half for eight weeks. The airline had reported a maximum number of snags in the last few months.

So what do these rising incidents of technical snags say? Are airlines cutting corners to stay afloat and are compromising on safety? The DGCA report suggests so.

The aviation regulator found that airlines were deploying staff with Category A licence as the final authorities in certifying planes. On July 18 it issued an order that only aircraft maintenance engineers or AMEs with category B1 and B2 licenses should do that job as they are more qualified and trained.

Category A licence engineers or technicians carry out minor line maintenance tasks based on their knowledge and experience,

While category B1 and B2 licence holders get specific type-rated training by airlines. Category B AME licence holders are also approved to do major maintenance works including repair, overhauling of mechanical components of heavy aircraft. Airlines usually determine the number of type-rated engineers required at any station.

Jitendra Singh Rawat, Former Joint DG in DGCA says airlines are type-training very few engineers for commercial reasons. Airlines are looking at this only as a way to meet their requirements, but not to establish an MRO. Major flight maintenance activities are outsourced by airlines to other countries.

Experts say the aviation regulator had adopted the European Union Safety Agency model for the aircraft maintenance staff that allowed airlines to issue Category-A licence to technicians. As a convenient measure and to conserve cash, the airlines started utilising Category-A licence holders at the transit base.

Clearly, there is a need for more well-trained manpower with Category B1/B2 licences. The DGCA says it issues enough licences. Between 2014 and 2022, it has issued 7,232 AME licences.

While the aircraft maintenance engineers with DGCA-approved licences get paid relatively well in line with the industry norms, the technicians at the bottom rank of the hierarchy argue that they get very less amount when they enter the industry as freshers. The pay-scale varies from airline to airline. But it is usually in the range of Rs 14,000 to Rs 19,000 per month for technicians, they say. As they move up the ranks, the staff get paid over Rs 20,000 per month. The trainee technicians are non-certified and don't have DGCA-approved licences. IndiGo has about 2,000 non-certified technicians on its payroll.

Currently, there are over 50 AME institutes approved by the DGCA. Experts say AME institutes only equip students with basic knowledge that is needed to get licences.

Airline executives have recently told Business Standard that high jet fuel prices and nascent recovery from pandemic have been holding them back from increasing the budget towards all this.

12/08/22 Akash Podishetty & Nitin Kumar/BusinessnStandard

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