The proposed Civil Aviation Policy has raised the hackles of many stakeholders. Take for example the airline industry, which has been divided right down the middle over the 5/20 restrictions to fly abroad. It seems that this archaic restriction will finally be abolished though with some conditions on new airlines. Another sector where a clause in this proposed policy document has triggered alarm bells is ground handling.
Ground handlers are alleging that if the new norms are implemented, it could threaten India's aviation security besides hurting the existing investments by ground handlers. The policy proposes to abolish the restriction on private airlines and charters from doing self handling. It also proposes that airlines can use temporary contract labour for ground handling and abolish any upper limit on the number of ground handlers at each airport.
Ground handling critical
Most people think ground handling is a service which need not concern them while flying. Ground handling services are an important part of an airline's operations. They include aircraft cleaning and servicing, loading and unloading of food and beverages, besides cargo and luggage handling at the airports. So your meals, your bags getting transferred on to the right flight and a clean aircraft seat are all functions of the ground handler at the departing airport.
In India, ground handling has been allowed since 2007 by either the airport operator or a third party which has been selected after a bidding process. Basically, private airlines have been barred from doing their own ground handling since then - the only airline which is allowed self handling is state-owned Air India. Also, permanent labour has been mandated for ground handlers since this ensures basic security clearance of people who handle bags, food delivery etc on an aircraft.
But the draft Civil Aviation Policy (DNCAP), which is now in the final stages of getting approvals, proposes to abolish the 2007 practice and allow private airlines as well as charters to do self handling. Not only will this provision hurt ground handling companies which are already operational through the third party bidding process at many of India's airports, it could also pose some serious security risks.
At least that is what the Ground Handlers Association has been saying in its comments on DNCAP. Till now, however, its pleas have fallen on deaf ears and it is possible that the association would consider knocking on the doors of the court for redressal. Secretary General of the Ground Handlers Association, Arvind Kumar, says the association represents the bonafide ground handling firms who entered the business after 2007 and that they have made considerable investments in the business since then. He speaks of "6 infirmities" which plague the draft Policy
"The DNCAP policy on ground handling needlessly jeopardizes the health of this important segment of aviation without serving the stated purpose of making affordable air travel. It also is bound to impact the security robustness of our airports. Has Khandahar gone from our memory? Or are we waiting for the next Pathankot now?" He says the draft policy ignores safety and security, specially by allowing unconditional self-handling, third party handling, contract labour deployment and limitless number of ground handling parties.
The association has already held multiple consultations with the ministry of civil aviation, with other stakeholders and top government functionaries to drive home the security threat aspect of the proposed new policy. Airlines, on their part, are obviously more interested in doing self handling since it rationalises costs and they perhaps feel it is a better way of ensuring efficiencies. According to the association, investments into the ground handling industry till now stand at about Rs 2000 crore and implementation of the draft policy will show an abrupt reversal of policy without adequate safeguards for existing investors.
The draft policy also proposes to lift the restriction on number of ground handlers which can operate at an airport. By allowing unlimited entry and minimum of three operators per airport, there could be "over-competition" and subsequent deterioration in service quality and safety/ security. The association also alleges that provisions of the draft policy ignore the legally contracted commitments that ground handling companies have signed with the airport operators, subsequent to the 2007 policy.
The ground handlers have instead suggested a few things:
1) Have an appropriate criteria defining the number of entities for an airport. Usually a passenger throughput of 7- 10 million would be fit for one ground handling operator.
2) Devise clear and strict guidelines for qualifying for ground handling, including adherence to IATA and ICAO guidelines.
3) The clause allowing contract labour for a minimum of one year
should be scrapped and instead, the existing policy of having only bonafide permanent employees with authorized ground handling entities should continue.
4) If airlines are to be allowed self handling, the concerned airlines should pass strict conditions of size, equipment, systems and bonafide whole time manpower criteria and also level playing field on royalties / deposits and service charges,
GHAI, a grouping of eight ground-handling agencies, claims its members account for about Rs 750 crore of the estimated Rs 3,000-crore domestic ground-handling market. And employ about 18,000 permanent staff as of now. Overseas investors are already miffed at the DNCAP since its approval would mean changes within existing contract periods and could discourage further FDI into this sector.