Thursday, September 28, 2023

Digital divide hits pilots

The much-publicised digitisation of DGCA was part of the Centre’s Ease of Doing Business initiative. But a pilots’ federation has flagged legal and technical issues regarding e-logging of flying hours. How valid are they?

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By Shobha John

The eGCA platform of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), which was started in 2019 with much fanfare and enthusiasm, has run into rough weather as many pilots logging in have faced technical glitches. In addition, the Federation of Indian Pilots (FIP) has now raised legal and technical hiccups in the system.

The e-governance of civil aviation was meant to ease glitches related to aviation, flight crew, training institutes and make approvals faster. Aviation personnel are no longer required to go the DGCA office and wait in line for hours for their licenses and medicals as they can do it online. It was supposed to be a game changer and do away with red-tapism and bureaucracy. Middlemen, a constant presence in the DGCA a decade back, would often ask for hefty sums to get the necessary approvals. eGCA has done away with that.

But like all new things, eGCA has faced teething troubles. It is a mountain few aviation personnel are willing to climb without help from technically proficient people. But more seriously, eGCA was introduced without amending The Aircraft Rules, 1937, according to FIP, a body founded in 1996. 

The FIP wrote to Arun Kumar, Director General of Civil Aviation, on June 6, 2022, flagging legal and technical issues regarding e-logging of flying hours on the eGCA platform. An FIP source told India Legal that the DGCA cannot amend rules on its own as that has to be done through Parliament. The letter, signed by Capt Surinder Mehta, President, FIP, referred to various clauses in Circular 2 of 2019 relating to flight crew where pilots were required to electronically log their flying hours on eGCA. But it said it was concerned that legislative amendments and technical modifications which were required to be made have not been done and that the best practices on e-logging of flying hours as adopted in other jurisdictions are missing. 

In a swift move, the DGCA rebutted each of the points raised by FIP’s June 6, 2022, letter by June 13, and said that the objective of digitisation and eGCA was to make the process paperless, seamless and was part of the government’s Ease of doing Business initiative. The letter, signed by Ajit Koshy, Director of Operations, DGCA, said that along with TCS, the DGCA had developed eGCA in line with regulatory provisions. It said the FIP’s concerns emanated from a “lack of proper appreciation of the regulations”. 

FIP’s letter raised the following points: 

*Violative of Rule 67A(2) of Aircraft Rules, 1937: This Rule says: “All entries in log books shall be made in ink.” Hence, according to FIP, maintaining flying records electronically is violative of the Rules. 

DGCA’s reply was that Sub-rule (3) of Rule 67 of The Aircraft Rules, 1937 provides that log books shall contain such information, entries and certification as may be specified by the Director-General. Sub-rule (1) of Rule 67A provides that every member of the flight crew shall maintain a personal log book in the form prescribed by the Director General and all flight times shall be logged there. The DGCA said that from the above provisions, it was evident that the personal logbook of flight crew shall be of such type and be maintained in the form prescribed by the Director General and therefore, the introduction of the e-logbook in eGCA cannot be termed a violation of Aircraft Rules, 1937. 

It further said that as far as entries in ink are concerned, this is not applicable to the e-logbook. However, ink entries are still required considering that several applicants undertake flying in other ICAO contracting states where e-logbook as a concept may not exist. Physical logbooks are the only way to ascertain and corroborate the submitted entries in e-logbook. “Notwithstanding, the same is being reviewed,” the DGCA said.

*Non-compliance with Rule 17 of the Aircraft Rules 1937: This rule says that pilots are obligated to produce logbooks and other documents for inspection on demand by any magistrate, police officer above the rank of sub-inspector, any customs officer, any commissioned officer of the naval, military or air force of the Union, any gazetted officer of the Civil Aviation Department or any other person authorised by the Central government by a special order. However, FIP said that due to electronic logging, pilots would not be able to produce the log books for inspection. This could invite penal action or adverse remarks from the authorities against the pilots, it claimed. 

But the DGCA referred to Rule 7 of The Rules (“Documents to be carried on aircraft”) and its enabling provision   (“CAR Section 2 Series X Part VII”), which mandates the carriage of appropriate licences for each member of the flight crew. A pilot logbook is not required to be carried on aircraft and if required, is to be produced within seven days of making of such a demand. The eGCA platform provides several options in this regard, including mobile app and a PDF document if needed for producing evidence on demand. It also said that current entries in the logbook are verified by competent authorities in accordance with Rule 67 A of the Aircraft Rules.

*Mandatory e-logging makes compliance with Rules 67A(9) impossible: This Rule mandates the logging of the total flight by the pilot in command. However, in cases of multiple crew operations (international flights), this rule becomes impossible to comply with, said an FIP source. “In India, pilots on international flights log in only half their flying hours. This is a stipulation from the DGCA which is applicable to multiple crew operations having two sets of pilots (i.e. four pilots) and where one set rests, while the other set operates the flight. This is for ultra long flights. However, logging half the hours (due to rest during the other half) is in violation of Aircraft Rules, 1937, which stipulate that the entire flight for which one is the pilot in command has to be logged.” 

Logging in half the hours of flight, he said, was also a violation of Flight Duty Time Limitation (FDTL) rules as the log shows that a pilot has flown less number of hours. Airlines can, therefore, make him fly more, leading to fatigue. But it must be noted that pilots are paid for the entire flight time. 

However, some pilots told India Legal that it was not possible that two commanders on the same flight, as in long haul flights, can log the same full hours. For example, a Delhi-New York flight of 13 hours cannot be logged 13 hours by both commanders on the flight to make a total of 26 hours of flying for that route. 

The DGCA reply to FIP’s point was that Sub-rule (9) of Rule 67A of the Aircraft Rules provides that the “holder of a Commercial or Airline Transport Pilots Licence may log as pilot-in-command the flight time during which he acts as pilot-in-command. He shall log as co-pilot the flight time during which he acts as co-pilot”. From the above, the DGCA asserted, it was clear that the total flight time was not to be entered in the manner as suggested in FIP’s letter but as laid down in the rule cited above. The quoted rule regarding logging in multi-crew environment is self-explanatory, it said. It added that the DGCA had conducted several meetings, trainings and sessions with operators involved in multi-crew operations towards sensitising flight crew about e-logging.

*Cyber Security: FIP also raised concerns about the security vulnerabilities of eGCA and said no information about data protection guarantees or encryption protocols had been disclosed in the public domain. The eGCA site has all the details of pilots and if hacked, this data can be tampered with, compromising their security and that of flights, said the FIP source. 

However, DGCA said it had implemented F5 Web Application Firewall (WAF) which internally uses Al and machine learning to predict and avoid data breaches and cyber-attacks. Apart from this, DGCA has implemented Firewall, Deep Security, Security Group, Network Control Access List Application Security, application access through HTTPS protocol, etc., so that the system was accessible only to authorised users. The entire infrastructure is hosted on MeitY empaneled Cloud Service Provider with requisite, storage, DC, DRC, private networking. Also, password and other sensitive data uses one way encryption algorithm at the client side (browser/mobile) which encrypts the data before submitting to the server. This ensures that only the end user knows the password/sensitive data, which cannot be decrypted even at the server level. The system is also periodically audited through third party security auditor, the DGCA said.

The FIP said many pilots had other complaints such as discrepancies in flying data between a pilot and his co-pilot when they log in separately into the eGCA site. “It is really not possible to have the exact same data being logged in by two people. A better way to do this would be a system where data is taken directly from the flight instruments, which is more accurate,” the FIP source said. 

In a move to allay these concerns, the DGCA has scheduled a meeting with FIP on July 4, 2022. Hopefully, these air pockets can be navigated then.   

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