Indian Airspace At Risk As ISRO’s GAGAN May Lose Safety Certification

The outbreak of COVID-19 has not only floored all domestic and international airline operations in India for the time being, but has also put in jeopardy the safety of flight operations upon resumption of services. The validity of India’s GPS Aided Geo Augmented Navigation system (GAGAN) license is expiring on 21st April, 2020 for Indian airlines and the current outbreak of COVID-19 has put all license renewal processes on hold.

Indian Airspace At Risk As ISRO's GAGAN May Lose Safety Certification
Indian Airspace At Risk As ISRO’s GAGAN May Lose Safety Certification

What is GAGAN?

GAGAN is a satellite based augmentation system or SBAS developed jointly by the Airports Authority of India (AAI), the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and Raytheon. It was first piloted in 2012 by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and launched officially later in July, 2015.

DGCA grants the GAGAN certification to the Airport Authority of India
DGCA grants the GAGAN certification to the Airport Authority of India

GAGAN aims to provide a navigation system to assist aircraft in accurate landing and applicable to safety-to-life civil operations. It works by gathering, analysing and then relaying data from two geostationary satellites and 15 reference stations in the Indian FIR or flight information region. GAGAN satellites can expand their coverage from Africa to Australia and the system has the capability to service 45 reference stations covering neighbouring countries.

Its claimed benefits include improved efficiency, increased fuel savings, direct routing, improved safety and ease of search & rescue operation. Without accurate GPS signalling provided by GAGAN system, it will be difficult for pilots to take off flights on rough terrain and bad weather conditions.

Why is GAGAN struggling for acceptance?

India’s airlines and smaller aircraft operators are starved of cash and the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has struggled to discipline or incentivize them into adopting the GAGAN system. Airlines made numerous presentations to the DGCA on the cost aspect, which has been the main reason for failure of its adoption.

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Around the launch in 2015, domestic airlines executives first expressed reservations with costs estimated at $160,000 per aircraft, requiring retrofitting and causing an increase in cockpit payload. An AAI official even admitted its own failing in marketing GAGAN effectively, saying “if you can’t sell it to your own airlines and prove that it is beneficial, what template will you propose to others?”

In December 2016, 18 months after its system wide launch, the DGCA communicated to the airlines that failure to implement the system would be met with “consequences,” which ultimately never materialized. Even government-owned helicopter operator Pawan Hans had failed to warm to the idea in early 2016.

In early January of 2019, the DGCA had to push back its deadline for the mandatory adoption of GAGAN by all imported aircrafts from 1st January, 2019 to 30th June, 2020, as global airlines ignored mandatory adoption.

Now, coronavirus has struck GAGAN, deferring the renewal deadlines from Apr 21, 2020 by approximately 75 days.

DGCA forced to announce exemptions and extensions

The DGCA has granted exemptions to airlines for now in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.

  • Indian airlines’ GAGAN license will be extended until July 3, 2020
  • Foreign airlines’ GAGAN license will be extended until September 30, 2020
  • Licenses and authorizations issued to aircraft maintenance personnel will be extended until July 3, 2020
  • Validity of continuation training requirements will be extended until July 3, 2020
  • Time required for completion of AME (Aircraft Maintenance Engineering, a 3-year long technical training course certified by the DGCA) license will be extended by a period of six months

Global airlines body questioning the business case for GAGAN license

In 2019, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) expressed its doubts on the business case for the GAGAN system and demanded voluntary adoption.

“We understand the GAGAN implementation has been deferred to June 30, 2020,” a representative for IATA told Avionics International. “We expect that individual airlines should have the freedom to assess whether to invest in SBAS based on their operational needs and if there is a business case to justify the investment.”

The cost for adoption was estimated at Rs 12.5 million per aircraft in early 2017. It is a worry that such purely financial considerations, as significant as they may be in the short-term, can have material long-term repercussion for safety.

In any case, because of the current climate of extraordinary financial stresses for the global and domestic airline industries, it could very well be that the timelines for mandatory adoption of GAGAN in India will be further extended.

Global air safety improved in 2019, but it could breed complacency

2019 saw 257 fatalities compared to 534 in 2018, according to aviation consultancy To70. Last year was “one of the safest years ever for commercial aviation,” according to accident tracking website the Aviation Safety Network. Air passenger safety had been under intense scrutiny in 2019 after two crashes in close succession of the Boeing 737 Max aircraft.

Statistically, however, the best year for global airlines was 2017, with just 4.4 deaths per crash and 44 fatalities. The year recorded the lowest number of fatal air accidents at 10 jointly with 2015.

Fatal air accident and deaths in past 5 years
Fatal air accident and deaths in past 5 years

Data from the Aviation Safety Network showed that over the last five years, air accident involving developing and emerging countries showed greater degree of fatality. The U.S., on the other hand, recorded very few fatalities, even as it recorded the highest number of accidents.

India’s absence on the graph is a testimony to the sound safety procedures put in place and practised over the years by the Indian civil air authorities, regulators and industry participants. One does hope that this does not breed any complacency, however, and that new & advanced safety equipment and systems such as GAGAN are adopted across the industry.

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