India’s ground handling policy stalls yet again

It is a familiar story and one that has been heard with astounding regularity since February 2007 - that is of course India's Ground Handling policy (GHP) that we are referring to. To say that it has had a chequered past would be an understatement. Every time the government has decided to introduce it, there has been opposition to it - whether from the private carriers or the security agencies. Manfred Singh gives us an update.

The policy was scheduled to take effect from 1 January 2011 and it would have put an end to the ground-handling by airlines at the six metro airports: Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Kolkata. But once again it was stopped in its tracks – the third time that the GHP has missed its deadline. Private airlines will continue to handle logistics that includes baggage movement, cargo scanning, parking of aircraft, refueling, catering, etc. One of the reasons that prompted the government to go ahead with the implementation of the GHP is that some private airlines have been outsourcing these ground handling operations, raising serious questions about the security within airports. Court challenge In the latest instance, matters came to a head around the end of November 2010 when the private airlines handling around 80 per cent of India’s air passenger and cargo market, under the banner of Federation of Indian Airlines (FIA), decided to take the matter to the Delhi High Court. In a petition directed at the Indian Civil Aviation Ministry, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, Airports Authority of India (AAI), Delhi International Airport Ltd, Mumbai International Airport Ltd, GMR Hyderabad International Airport Ltd, Bangalore International Airport Ltd and the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs, the carriers pointed out that the policy when implemented would take ground handling at Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Kolkata airports from their hands into the hands of only three ground handling agencies: The National Aviation Company India Limited (NACIL) and its joint venture and two other companies. The petition also said that the move would result in 3,000 persons losing their jobs. The carriers argued in the petition that “providing ground-handling service is a part of essential business activity of the airlines, hence the impugned circular violates the individual airlines’ fundamental right to practice any profession or to carry on any occupation, trade or business”. The airlines also said that in airports around the world, airline operators provided ground-handling “in both ramp and terminal side operations”. Keeping the security factor in the background, the Delhi High Court gave interim directions that while security would be handled by the government agencies, the ground handling would continue to be done by the private airlines. In fact, the High Court is yet to give its judgement in the case. During the course of the hearing, 13 ground handling functions were identified as those that were linked to security. The government said that the new security protocol would be in place before 1 January 2011. However, even before the January 1 deadline, the agency responsible for aviation security in India, the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS), had put up serious objections about the rules framed in the present version of the policy that were cleared at the topmost level: the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). This time around, the BCAS said that it was not consulted. “As per the existing aviation security programme, airlines have been undertaking some of the security related activities. In the case of security lapses airlines could be held responsible. But if the ground handling activities are handed over to other agencies airlines would shrug off their responsibilities,” the BCAS wrote to the aviation ministry. Badra enters the scene Even as all this was going on, at government-controlled Airports Authority of India’s (AAI) Chennai International airport, freight forwarders and air cargo stakeholders began the year on an uncertain note because the airport’s management had handed over ground handling for cargo and passenger services to a new company, the Delhibased Bhadra International. This, at a time when the airport had been doing well: It achieved 15 per cent growth in imports and 35 per cent growth in exports in the last 10 months. To top it all, the airport’s cargo facilities are being enhanced at a cost of US$3.22 million. Bhadra International was awarded the ground handling contract at Tiruchi, Cochin, Calicut, Thiruvananthapuram, Mangalore, and Kolkata in addition to Chennai. What the forwarders were apprehensive about was that the company had not brought in equipment or signed new contracts with the airlines although the chairman of Bhadra International, Prem Bajaj, went on record to say that the company was prepared to take over ground handling at the airport from 1 January. There was widespread opposition to the Bhadra takeover for a number of reasons. One reason was the charge that Bhadra had been given the contract because it was headed by former AAI staff. Many at the airport pointed out that a state-of-the-art Automatic Storage and Retrieval System (ASRS) along with cargo facilities were being put up by March 2011. All this would make the cargo facilities totally mechanised. Was there any need to bring in a private company to do the job, the stakeholders asked. And so for now, the situation remains little changed in the Indian ground handling scene with no clear indication of when and what the next step will be, let alone whether there will even be a next step.