Civil Aviation Minister Ashok Gajapathi Raju’s admission that he has been boarding aircraft with matchboxes on his person is disturbing. Such was not the case when he wasn’t a minister, he has also divulged. Back then, he would be subjected to frisking and his cigarette lighters and matchboxes would be confiscated. But there’s little solace in knowing security personnel tend to do their job when non-VIPs are involved. Raju’s case not only evokes the worst practices of India’s culture of VIP exemptions, but coming from the civil aviation minister himself, this violation of rules sends out a dangerous signal.
Raju’s admission came even as the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has revoked its safety downgrade of India to Category 2. Last year’s downgrade had embarrassed India and stoked fears of a domino effect, whereby other key aviation hubs like the EU, Singapore or the UAE might have followed the FAA. It barred Air India and Jet Airways from expanding their US operations and affected codeshare arrangements with American carriers. This was a blow just when Indian civil aviation was hoping to ride a series of reforms and withstand a downturn. The FAA had found the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) below par in technical expertise, trained manpower and safety maintenance records. The upgrade follows an audit by a visiting FAA team last December and a second audit last month.
It has taken India 14 months to return to Category 1, less than Israel’s four years but not close to Mexico’s record six months. While Raju can’t be faulted for pointing out that security measures should be meaningful without being obtrusive or obstructionist vis a vis economic activities, surely smoking or matchboxes do not find place under either category. The sector had a scare under the downgrade. It cannot afford a wrong signal from its minister.