The directorate general of civil aviation (DGCA), the outfit under the ministry of civil aviation overseeing commercial air travel in India, has not improved its stock by asking for the suspension of the crew of a Jet Airways chartered flight, which allowed playback singer Sonu Nigam to sing a couple of songs through the public address system at the request of passengers. Most will sympathise with the singer's feeling that the authorities showed a lack of common sense and appeared intolerant. He could have added that they lacked a sense of proportion and were devoid of a sense of humour. The DGCA's assertion that it would not allow any activity which poses a safety threat to passengers is a non sequitur. Singing a song through the public address system, when the aircraft is cruising and the seat belt sign is off, does not imply a security threat or lapse. Only dyed-in-the-wool bureaucrats would declare that anything not specifically permitted is disallowed and unsafe. It is so much better to say that anything that is not forbidden but seems risky should be avoided. No crew member, from the captain downward, whose own safety after all depends on the flight's overall safety, would allow any activity which is remotely risky. The practical reality is that air passengers are a high-earning lot and during the hour or more of a flight you could have their virtually undivided attention. This is an enormous marketing opportunity and whatever is inherently safe should be allowed - or at least not disallowed.
What DGCA has managed to do through this action is to have drawn attention to itself and some of its known bad habits. One is the great urge to fiddle with fares whenever it gets a chance. Not so long ago, the minister in question, after informing the Rajya Sabha that the government had no plans to regulate air fares, went on soon thereafter to say that predatory pricing could be prevented through the DGCA. How this would happen when there is already so much competition is quite unclear. On the same issue of prices, the draft aviation policy contains a proposal to cap fares on relevant routes to promote regional connectivity. But costs along different regional routes differ and selecting one fare out of a hat makes little sense.
Considering that the civil aviation ministry and the DGCA are so prone to mishaps, this latest occasion provides an opportunity to raise some longer-term issues. The first and foremost is: why is the DGCA still around? It should already have been replaced by an independent Civil Aviation Authority to take care of economic regulation of the industry. The second issue is: why is Air India allowed to carry on, in a business-as-usual mode? The last government spent Rs 30,000 crore without any sign that the state-owned carrier will turn healthy and the current government has not called a complete halt to such infusion of funds. Clearly, governments in India change but the ability of officialdom (both the political executive and the bureaucracy) to hang on to organisations, which exist essentially for their benefit, remains unchanged.