India Admits Airport Flaws as Minister Flies With Matches

The agency in charge of ensuring security at Indian airports is “badly understaffed,” with just one or two people manning offices in some regional airports, the top bureaucrat in the country’s civil aviation ministry said.

Aviation Secretary V. Somasundaran’s comments come as global attention is focused on flight safety after a series of disasters in recent months. In late March a co-pilot with a history of mental health issues deliberately crashed a Germanwings plane into a French mountainside, prosecutors say, killing all 150 people on board.

India’s Bureau of Civil Aviation Security is in charge of ensuring that airports and planes are secure to fly, which includes detaining or stopping suspicious persons and ensuring that no weapons come onboard a plane. The bureau was established in 1978 after a flight by Indian Airlines, which was later merged with state-run Air India Ltd., was hijacked.

The bureau “has its own constraints. It is badly understaffed” Somasundaran said Tuesday at an industry conference in New Delhi. He said India will take steps to substantially increase manpower at the bureau, without elaborating. The bureau usually hires from paramilitary forces.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration downgraded India’s airline-safety ranking last year -- placing it alongside Zimbabwe and Indonesia -- after it found there weren’t enough officials to ensure the safe operation of flights. The ranking means Indian airlines can’t expand their offerings in the U.S.

Traffic Growth

The bureau’s responsibilities are set to grow as the government plans to build 15 more airports in the next two to four years, Somasundaran said, and as cargo traffic rises. The number of domestic air travelers in India is expected to grow 6.9 percent a year to some 215 million by 2034, according to estimates by the International Air Transport Association. India will need 1,290 new planes in the two decades to 2032, at a total value of some $190 billion, to meet the surging travel demand, Airbus Group NV has said.

Ashok Gajapathi Raju said at the same event that since he became India’s federal aviation minister, he’s able to carry a matchbox aboard his flights.

“Once I became a minister of civil aviation, people stopped frisking me,” Raju said. “I am a heavy smoker, so my matchbox came along with me, which earlier used to get confiscated.”

The FAA is currently reviewing whether India has made enough progress on aviation safety before deciding whether to upgrade its status. That would allow Indian carriers to expand service in the U.S.

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