Thursday 4 June 2015

How XBRL can make air travel safe in India

"You Can Get a Pilot License in India After Just 35 Minutes in Air," screamed the headline in the Bloomberg yesterday.

"Indian Trainee Pilots Passed After Just 35 Minutes Flight Time, Report Says," Time magazine said, quoting the Bloomberg report.

Just when things seem to be looking up for the Indian aviation sector, Bloomberg filed this story which the world media picked up right away. It was presented not as an isolated problem but as a systemic one and if the intention was to scare people into not flying on Indian carriers, it worked.

The Indian regulator made noises on predictable lines, assuring swift and prompt action and a tightening of oversight.

Technology offers a solution, a simple elegant solution at that. The answer lies in adopting XBRL as the reporting standard. The Indian aviation regulator, DGCA should move all reporting in the aviation industry to XBRL forthwith. Every shred of information it collects should be in XBRL, whether the information reported is by airlines or airports, by pilots and by pilot training schools, just about everyone. it will improve compliance, it will strengthen supervision and problems can be detected early allowing the possibility of swift stern action against the erring lot.

I am no aviation expert but this is how I think this could have been caught with XBRL. Consider the facts. Bloomberg says "Anupam Verma has a certificate that shows he has flown an aircraft for 360 hours. He says he got it after sitting in the co-pilot’s seat for just 35 minutes."

Every flying school is surely asked to maintain records of the training it imparts to each and every student pilot. If the student went up with a Pilot, the data captured would have included information on the aircraft flown, the name of the pilot who went up with the student, information from the nearest air traffic control which would have to maintain independent records of the flight with all of the details including date, time, and the aircraft's call in number which acts as a unique ID. Such data would have to be captured during take of and landing as well. Then there is the fuel consumption which is recorded by the oil company which does the ground refuelling of the aircraft. But we dont need to go that far to catch the lies.

If DGCA had received the data in XBRL from the flying school, and if the school was a fraud, the numbers would simply not have added up. Either the number of hours flown by a plane in a day when the data is all aggregated would have had to be more than 24 hours in a calendar day as the school would not be able to show use of aircraft it did not have, or if it did have aircraft not cleared for flying which it showed as having been used, the blatant violation by using such aircraft would have come to the fore through a cross verification of a database which listed all aircraft okayed to fly. If one had bothered to similarly verify the instructors participation in the flight, again the numbers would not have smelled anything but fishy. Inevitably the pilots would have reported to have logged more hours than they are legally allowed to and may even more than the 24 hours a calendar day offers. I can go on and on but to make the point, this should suffice.

With the adoption of XBRL, inconsistencies would have jumped out, allowing the regulator to take swift speedy action against the fraudsters. XBRL, through the taxonomy and a business rules engine, will; flag such anomalies in the data automatically. Being an XML standard, it also allows for seamless data interchange across regulators, thereby increasing the efficiency of each of them.

At a time when India is seeking to redeem itself, this is something that India may wish to consider to improve regulatory oversight and gain a good name for itself the world over. Is DGCA listening ?

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