By : Ramesh Vaidyanathan and Mansi Singh
The (Indian) Aircraft Act, 1934 (“the Act”) was enacted to regulate the manufacture, possession, use, operation, sale, import and export of aircraft. It makes provisions for securing the safety of aircraft operations in India and carrying out civil aviation operations as per the standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (“ICAO”).
ICAO, under its Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme and the Universal Security Audit Programme, conducts regular safety and security audits of all the countries that are signatories to the Chicago Convention to ensure that the signatories are fulfilling their obligation of safety and security oversight functions. The audits conducted by ICAO in 2012 and 2015 indicated the need for India to accord proper recognition to the regulators under the Act, to enhance the quantum of fines and to empower officers to impose financial penalties for violations of the law.
Keeping these in mind, the Aircraft (Amendment) Bill, 2020 (“the Bill”) has been introduced recently in India’s lower house (Lok Sabha). The Bill seeks to amend the Act and give effect to the abovementioned recommendations of ICAO.
Key provisions of the Bill
Authorities: The Bill proposes to convert the three existing bodies under the Ministry of Civil Aviation (“MoCA”) into statutory bodies under the Act, i.e., (i) the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (“DGCA”), (ii) the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (“BCAS”), and (iii) the Aircraft Accidents Investigation Bureau (“AAIB”). The Bill empowers the Central Government to appoint the Director General of DGCA, the Director General of BCAS and the Director General of AAIB under the Act and to specify their responsibilities. The superintendence of the DGCA, BCAS and AAIB will now vest in the Central Government, which will also have the power to issue directions to each of these organisations in public interest.
Adjudication of Penalties: The Bill provides for the appointment of designated officers, not below the rank of Deputy Secretary, to adjudicate on penalties under the Bill. A party aggrieved by an order of a designated officer may appeal to an appellate officer within 30 days from the day the order is received by the aggrieved party.
Cognizance of Offences: The Bill provides that courts shall not take cognizance of any offence under the Act unless a complaint is made by, or there is previous sanction in writing from, the DGCA, BCAS or AAIB. The Bill provides that only courts equivalent or superior to a Metropolitan Magistrate or a Magistrate of the first class can try any offence under the Act.
Quantum of Penalty: Under the Act, the penalty for various offences is imprisonment of upto two years or a fine of upto INR 1 million (approx. USD 13,720), or both. The Bill raises the maximum limit on fines for all these offences from INR 1 million (approx. USD 13,720) to INR 10 million (approx. USD 137,201).
Air Navigation Services: Air Navigation Services in India are provided by the Airports Authority of India (“AAI”). The Ministry of Civil Aviation exercises administrative control over AAI. The Bill seeks to enlarge the scope of the Act to include regulation of all areas of air navigation and the Central Government can now make rules to regulate aeronautical information services, aeronautical charting and cartography services, aeronautical meteorological services, search and rescue services, procedure for air navigation services and aircraft operations and any other matter relating to air navigation services.
Compounding of Offences: The Bill allows for the compounding of certain offences such as (i) flying to cause danger to any person or property; and (ii) the contravention of any directions issued by the Director General of any of the three statutory bodies.
Once the Bill becomes law, it will align Indian civil aviation operations with internationally accepted standards, procedures and practices laid down by ICAO. It is expected to empower DGCA, BCAS and AAIB to function more efficiently and ensure enhanced safety and security of aircraft operations in India. Also, the increased penalties will act as a deterrent against air safety violations.