A lack of effective implementation persists of its requirements in all eight critical areas 

Aviation: Concerned with Bhutan’s aviation safety oversight shortcomings, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has called the department of civil aviation (DCA) to Bangkok for a meeting, next month.

In a letter to the government, ICAO points out that, since a 2006 audit on the agency, there remains a lack of effective implementation of its requirements in all eight critical areas required for effective oversight, but that it is especially concerned with shortcomings in four specific areas, according to DCA director, Wangdi Gyaltshen.

Bhutan’s effective implementation is currently the lowest in the South Asian region at 38.8 percent.

The score, however, does not mean that flying on Bhutanese airlines is unsafe.  The airlines have their own safety personnel and are mandated to treat safety as the top priority.  But the score reflects that the government’s oversight over the aviation industry does not comply with international standards, and that it has struggled to keep up with the industry’s growth since as far back as 1999, when the first ICAO audit was carried out.

The four areas ICAO identifies as weak are: lack of legislation, organisational weaknesses, lack of an accident investigation section, and problems with air navigation services.

Efforts are being made to address the shortcomings. Wangdi Gyaltshen said that the most immediate improvements would be in organisation and legislation, where DCA and Paro international airport will be separated.  He said the process has reached an “advanced stage” and would likely take place after an upcoming organisational development (OD) exercise.

The separation of the department and the airport, which will be corporatised, will remove a conflict of interest situation, where the regulator is also the service provider.  Following the separation, DCA will be able to audit airport services without conflict of interest.

Another area that DCA has made progress is in legislation.  DCA has completed revising its Act, which was last done in 2000.  It is currently in draft form and is being reviewed by the Office of the Attorney General to be submitted for the next session of Parliament.

However, there are still more complex situations that will continue to contribute to a bad score, such as in air navigation services.  Air traffic control at the airport is currently managed by the Indian air force, which is not subject to DCA regulations as it is a civilian regulator.  ICAO requires that civilian licensed personnel operate a civilian air traffic control.  Efforts have been made to transfer air traffic control to DCA, but progress has stalled at the political level.

On the establishment of an independent accident investigation unit, ICAO has recommended Bhutan sign an MoU with a third country, so that it can provide this capability, if ever required.  Wangdi Gyaltshen said that, following the OD exercise, a focal person will be recruited, who will study the feasibility of signing such an MoU.

The biggest hurdle to improving Bhutan’s score is in addressing organisational weaknesses, such as lack of critical professionals, like flight safety and airworthiness officers.  Such officers are paid significantly higher by the private sector – the two airlines – preventing DCA from retaining them.

DCA currently has only one qualified airworthiness officer and one flight safety officer.

While new staff have been placed within the department under airworthiness and flight safety, they are not qualified and have only received short term training courses, and so are not recognised by ICAO.

Personnel have also been placed under security and air navigation services.  The DCA director said that more personnel would be recruited following the OD exercise.

But whether the empty posts can be filled by qualified professionals that ICAO recognises will be a challenge.

Attempts to immediately address the critical human resource shortcomings by recruiting international professionals have not proved successful because of unavailability and high costs of remuneration. Wangdi Gyaltshen said that “hundreds” of attempts have been made to find such officers abroad.

While the civil service commission gave DCA some leeway in recruiting, it was able to approve only up to USD 1,500 a month. But a single expert for flight safety or airworthiness can cost up to USD 15,000 a month.

DCA is now studying the feasibility of recruiting local professional at pay equivalent to that of the airlines, which is around Nu 60,000 and upwards monthly, according to the director.  This alternative still requires government approval first.

In its letter, ICAO has also pointed out that the organisation would assist Bhutan in coming up with an action plan, offer guidance, and in obtaining support to solve its long standing problems.

“This is a welcome gesture from the ICAO regional office but ultimately it all boils down to resources which unfortunately is scarce,” Wangdi Gyaltshen said.

While resources may be limited, DCA in its performance agreement with the  government has already committed to bring down oversight rating to an internationally acceptable level (50 percent) by 2018.

By Gyalsten K Dorji