NEW DELHI: US aviation authorities have downgraded India's safety ranking in a "disappointing" and "surprising" move, below that of Pakistan, with fears that it will hit air links between the countries, India's aviation minister said Friday.
The US Federal Aviation Administration downgraded India after conducting an audit last year of the country's aviation regulator that found 31 issues of safety concern, a ministry statement said.
The issues include the need for more and better trained full-time inspectors employed by the regulator tasked with carrying out safety checks on all types of aircraft and helicopters in India, it said.
"They have downgraded us to category 2. It is very disappointing and also surprising," Aviation Minister Ajit Singh said at a press conference in New Delhi.
The FAA has "determined that India at this time is not in compliance with the international standards for aviation safety oversight," according to FAA notes given to Indian regulator the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA).
The rating downgrade brings India below Pakistan and on a par with countries like Bangladesh, Ghana and Indonesia, according to FAA.
The downgrading effectively bars Air India and Jet Airways from increasing flights to the US, and additional safety checks will now be imposed on existing flights to the United States, the FAA's website shows.
Currently, Air India has 21 flights to the US per week while Jet Airway flies seven.
Indian airlines will also have to snap ties with US airlines, according to the website, but DGCA chief Prabhat Kumar said the downgrade would not affect the code-share agreement.
Jet has a code-share agreement with United Airlines currently, while Air India is joining Star Alliance.
Singh said 95 per cent of issues raised by the FAA have been resolved, while the remainder were expected to be resolved by March, adding it was the first time India had suffered a downgrade.
"They (FAA) should have based their decision on the situation now," said Singh, adding that the FAA's downgrade was based on air safety in September.
The downgrade is the latest controversy between the US and India, which are attempting to put diplomatic relations back on track after outrage in December over the arrest and strip search of an Indian envoy in New York.
The envoy, Devyani Khobragade, was arrested on charges of visa fraud involving her domestic servant and lying about how much she paid her. Khobragande denied any wrongdoing and eventually returned to India after a deal was struck between the two nations to mend their relations.
In a bid to head off the downgrade, the government announced two days ago that 75 new positions would be created in the DGCA to carry out safety inspections.
"This is an important step that will aid in India regaining its former Category 1 status in the future," the FAA said in its notes to the DCGA and released by the minister.
"The United States Government commends the Indian government for taking these important actions and looks forward to continued progress by Indian authorities," the FAA said.
India's aviation sector has grown enormously in the last decade, as the 1.2-billion population becomes more affluent, boosting the number of international and domestic passengers.
But the sector has been hit in the past by safety scandals, including over fake pilots flying with fake qualifications in 2001.
Police made several arrests over the scandal involving cases of pilots exaggerating their flying time while training and other irregularities.
In one such case, a captain who made several bad landings was found to have submitted faked paperwork to gain her licence.
Experts said they expected the downgrade as the aviation regulator had failed to address earlier FAA warnings in a given period of time.
"The decision of the FAA to downgrade is both embarrassing and disgraceful ... but one could see it coming," former Air India executive director Jitendra Bhargava told AFP. "The DGCA should take this as a wake up call."
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