Aviation regulator DGCA has grounded 11 pilots of infrastructure major GMR for three months, virtually rendering a large chunk of its aircraft fleet non-operational and leading key politicians to look for alternatives to carry out their ongoing poll campaigning.
The DGCA's unprecedented move came after the regulator's team found that several flights operated by GMR Aviation in the last month, including one on Monday when an aircraft flew Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi to Bhubaneshwar, had skipped some mandatory tests, DGCA sources said.
The tests included the pre-flight breath analysis of pilots and cabin crew, with the breathalyser equipment being non-functional, they said.
The non-scheduled charter operator's documentation and equipment were monitored between March 12 and April 14 and these major lapses were found by the regulator.
After going through the flying records of GMR Aviation during this period, DGCA found evidence of "false" pre-flight medical checks, the sources claimed.
GMR's Falcon 2000-Lx, one of the most advanced business jets in the country which flew Rahul on Monday, is used extensively by the Gandhis, who also use its Hawker-750 airplane and two Bell choppers.
The DGCA issued notices to the 11 pilots and six cabin crew of GMR Aviation as to why their should not be suspended for five years, they said.
The regulator also decided to act against the company's doctor for issuing pre-flight medical certificates to the crew even when the breathalyser equipment was not working for almost a month, the sources said.
Pre-flight breathalyser tests are mandatory for all flights which are used by SPG-protectees like Rahul or Sonia Gandhi.
Industry sources said suspending as many as 11 pilots of a charter firm would virtually render GMR's fleet of two business jets non-functional for a long time, especially when they were booked for electioneering and other purposes.
It is also extremely difficult to hire pilots of such airplanes for three months as a replacement for the suspended GMR crew, they said. The private operators fly 552 aircraft, many of which are now being used for poll campaign.
On the other hand, it would not be very easy for the politicians who have fixed election programmes to find alternate charter companies as most of them are already booked, the industry sources said.
During the past month, DGCA has been conducting surprise checks on non-scheduled air operators which operate private charters and are currently in huge demand from various parties for election campaigning.
It has taken action against the aircraft of top corporates and politicians -- ranging from the Ambanis, Jindals and Tata Group company Business Jets India, to Congress leader Kamal Nath's Span Aviation and Punjab's Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal's Orbit Aviation.
The Business Aircraft Operator's Association (BAOA), an umbrella body of non-scheduled operators (NSOPs), recently objected to DGCA's surprise checks, saying its public observations "misrepresent the proven safety consciousness prevailing among NSOPs and private aircraft operators".
In letters to DGCA and the Civil Aviation Ministry, BAOA Secretary Grp Capt R K Bali also said "it is disheartening to find that undue and misplaced publicity is being given to these surprise checks by subjective reporting of these (DGCA) observations."
"It is not fair to make Indian NSOP operators a scapegoat to showcase DGCA's authority by subjective reporting of the observations during these (recent) inspections," he said.