That the Indian bureaucracy finds it difficult to shake off its micro-management of the economy more than 20 years into economic reform is a given. But even by its own standards, the recent move by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) to launch an enquiry into the on-time performance, or OTP, of airlines touches new heights of interference. The enquiry is not the result of concern for passengers on account of delayed flights, which should ordinarily concern an industry regulator. Amazingly, it is quite the opposite. The DGCA wants to know how some airlines, using the same aircraft as other airlines on a given route, take a shorter time to reach their destinations. It claims that airlines are breaching a DGCA stipulation that the difference between the maximum and minimum time on a particular route should not be more than 10 minutes.
The airline industry regulator is purportedly concerned that the actual difference can be as much as 30 minutes. Thus, Jet Airways takes between 1 hour 50 minutes and 2 hours 20 minutes on the Delhi-Mumbai leg, whereas SpiceJet takes anywhere between 1 hour 45 minutes and 2 hours 10 minutes. DGCA officials are quoted as being concerned because these inflated claims are motivated by the airlines' desire to keep extra time with themselves as a cushion, to help passengers in transit and catching onward flights and report better OTP. The time cushion actually helps passengers who are in transit.
But instead of being sensitive to this consumer-friendly practice, the DGCA sees the extra time as detracting from the possibility of creating more time slots and introducing more flights - that too at airports that are already dangerously congested. Besides, it is probably off the mark to consider this a sinister practice. For airlines, a quicker turnaround lies at the heart of its competitive edge and profitability - it is, for instance, the centre of low-cost airline IndiGo's market share. Airlines are unlikely to deliberately dawdle on routes and take a hit on the bottom line. Indeed, it is doubly difficult to understand the DGCA's stricture on this when it continues to function under the ministry of civil aviation, which happens to own an airline – Air India – that competes with private airlines.
Indeed, it is hard to understand why the DGCA should train its sights on an issue so marginal when it surely has more urgent tasks at hand. It is worth noting that it took Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh's direction for the DGCA to ground Air India's Dreamliners for safety reasons, despite the many questions being raised globally on the safety of these new-generation aircraft. Was the DGCA not cognisant of this fact? It is equally puzzling that the regulator enabled Kingfisher Airlines to stay in operation for as long as it did despite being patently insolvent and unable to pay airport charges and its fuel bills. Or maybe these basic roles are denied to it because it is not an independent regulator. If this enquiry into the minutiae of OTP proves anything, it is the urgent need to delink the DGCA from the government.