Cockpit fraud: Fears grow over India’s fake pilots

India’s fake pilot scandal began unravelling when a female captain landed her packed airliner on the nose instead of the rear wheels as she touched down in the holiday hotspot of Goa.

Parminder Kaur Gulati, flying for the fastest-growing airline in the booming Indian sector, IndiGo, was investigated for the dangerous error in January and was found with falsified qualifications. She has since been fired and arrested.

The case set alarm bells ringing for passengers, anxious about the idea of a semi-trained fraud being responsible for their lives, and for airline bosses, who have been hiring crew at a furious pace in recent years.

It also cast a spotlight on a familiar problem in India, where corruption is widely seen as on the rise: most things, even qualifications for highly skilled jobs, can be bought at a price.

“It’s as bad as doctors or surgeons who fake their certificates and put people’s lives at risk,” says Baijayant Panda, a member of Parliament from the eastern state of Orissa.

“But it’s not limited to aviation in India. In many fields, you have a lot of fakery going on,” the lawmaker, seen as part of a new breed of young Indian politicians, told a debate show on NDTV television last week.

Since the discovery of Gulati, at least five other pilots have been arrested working for low-cost flier SpiceJet, national flag carrier Air India and smaller regional airline MDLR.

More arrests expected
India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), which is responsible for pilot examinations and granting licences, has announced it will look into the credentials of 4 000 commercial airline pilots.

More arrests are expected.

Amid rising anxiety, attention has focused on a small school in the arid west of the country, the Rajasthan State Flying School, which has been running for the last 10 years.

Two of its alumni, working for SpiceJet, were arrested on Monday.

“A pilot needs to have completed a minimum 200 hours of flying to get a licence. Several of the pilots from there had only completed 50 to 60 hours,” Umesh Mishra, from Rajasthan’s anti-corruption bureau, told Agence France-Presse.

Police built a case against the school and its graduates by checking the logbooks of the instructors responsible for certifying that trainees have completed supervised hours at the controls of a plane.

“We checked those records against the records kept by the air traffic control authorities in Rajasthan and found that some of these flights never took place,” Mishra said.

Police began looking into the school after being approached by someone who alleged that they had paid a million rupees ($22 000) to the chief instructor, who never granted a licence.

The DGCA, which the airlines blame for the licence debacle, has promised a probe into 40 schools around the country “to find out if there are any irregularities in their functioning”.

“A special team will be constituted to complete the audit in three months and bring the truth out,” DGCA chief EK Bharatbhushan promised on Tuesday.

The parliamentarian Panda, who holds flying licences in three countries — India, South Africa and the United States — believes the problem is systemic: suffocating red tape provides the opportunity for bribes.

“The DGCA has become a humongous bureaucracy and the red tape involved is phenomenal,” he said. “Even genuine pilots, it takes them months and sometimes years to clear the process.

“This incentivises people to go to touts who say ‘Why go through the genuine process? I’ll fix it for you’.”

Repeated pattern
It’s a pattern repeated across the country, where bribes are frequently paid for driving licences, passports, ration cards for subsidised food, university degrees or even doctor’s certificates.

Last year, the head of the Medical Council of India, which is responsible for certifying medical qualifications, was arrested for allegedly accepting a bribe of 20-million rupees to recognise a medical college.

Ketan Desai, along with two other doctors and a suspected tout, await trial.

TR Raghunandan, who set up, an online forum for citizens to vent their frustration about corruption, says that bribes paid for education certificates are part of life in India.

The implication is widely understood by companies and recruitment agencies, who face a difficult task in verifying the qualifications and experience claimed by job candidates.

“Flying schools are meant to be monitored by the DGCA. What is the DGCA doing? They are themselves so corrupt,” the retired civil servant told AFP. — AFP

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Adam Plowright
Adam Plowright works from Paris. Author of The French Exception, the first English-language biography of @EmmanuelMacron. France correspondent for @AFP. Formerly in Delhi, Brussels, London. Adam Plowright has over 5812 followers on Twitter.

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