Business Today

Taking Wing

After a long time, pilots are back in demand. But challenges remain.
By Manu Kaushik | Print Edition: April 9, 2017
Taking Wing
Every IndiGo pilot has to go through flight simulator training once every six months (Photo: Shekhar Ghosh)

Sahil Ahlawat is shy, but one cannot help notice his passion for aviation. The 19-year-old student of the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Uran Akademi, or IGRUA, has just finished training to become a pilot. To get a commercial pilot's licence (CPL), Ahlawat, like his 190 batch mates, had to fly a minimum of 200 hours under different conditions - solo flying, night flying, etc.

A commercial pilot's job is coveted due to several reasons - starting salaries of Rs2.5lakh per month, international job opportunities, higher retirement age (65), stable yet fast-growing career graph, and great medical benefits, among others. The costs are high as well. While one has to spend between Rs30 lakh and Rs65 lakh to undergo training for CPL, type rating expenses are Rs25 lakh-30 lakh.

Ahlawat's CPL training is over, but that will not ensure a job with an airline. In order to get a job in a scheduled airline, he will also have to undergo type rating training on certain aircraft types such as Boeing 737, Airbus A320, etc. "Very few are type rated. But, depending on each airline's capacity, pilots are hired with varying levels of experience. With the aviation sector growth outlook being positive, it, however, augurs well for pilots," says Roshan Joshi, Senior Vice President, Flight Operations, Vistara.

At present, pilot demand exceeds supply by a huge margin with all major airlines expanding their fleet size. IndiGo, the largest carrier in terms of marketshare, has orders for over 400 Airbus A320neos that will be inducted to its fleet by 2026. Mumbai-based GoAir will add 140 Airbus A320neos. SpiceJet has ordered 42 Boeing 737 MAX 8, and purchase rights for another 50 Boeing 737 MAX 8 and wide-body aircraft. For every aircraft, airlines are required to hire 12 pilots - going by the fleet addition plan -IndiGo, GoAir and SpiceJet will, therefore, need over 8,340 pilots over the next 10 years.

Besides, there is a huge shortage of pilots in the Asia Pacific, given that India, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines are going through a boom phase. According to International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the region will need 230,000 pilots by 2030, while the current training capacity is only about 5,000 a year. "We are adding new aircraft but there is a severe shortage of pilots," says Mark Martin, founder and CEO of aviation consultancy Martin Consulting LLC. According to estimates, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) issues just about 900 commercial pilot licences every year. The number of type-rated candidates is even lower.

Changing Times

Given the present scenario, it is ironical that nearly 8,000 commercial pilots do not have a job with airlines. Besides, if one would seek a job as a trainer, he would not only have to do with far lower salary but also have to clock more flying hours to become eligible for the post. And, a section of experts are of the view that the abysmal quality of training institutes has been at the root of the problem. "My perception is that training institutes in India lack infrastructure," says Capt. Ashim Mittra, Vice President, Flight Operations, IndiGo. Lack of infrastructure and trainers coupled with high costs

However, things seem to be changing. "In a dull market, pilots who do not get jobs in airlines become trainers. But the current boom period is creating enough job opportunities in airlines. In this part of the world, anybody who is learning to fly is finding a job because the opportunities are high. Airlines are growing and hiring," says an expert.

The DGCA has also been at the forefront of the much-needed cleaning-up of the system by taking action against erring institutes. In 2011, for instance, it conducted an audit of 40 flying schools across the country and found discrepancies - fudging of flying hours, lack of infrastructure and experienced trainers, improper syllabus, lack of documentation and poorly maintained airstrips - in almost all. Subsequently, many schools were shut down for non-compliance of guidelines. At present, India has 29 pilot training institutes - 14 are privately owned, six are run by state governments and four are public limited institutes.

In some parts of Europe and the US, the situation is entirely different due to limited job opportunities. People end up becoming instructors, keep logging, join commuter airlines, gain experience and then get inducted into an airline. "In India, there are a couple of institutes that have the required infrastructure, but there is a huge vacuum of instructors," says IndiGo's Mittra.

Rot Remains

Despite actions by the DGCA, the rot remains. In November, Minister of State for Civil Aviation, Jayant Sinha, informed the Parliament that 17 pilots had obtained licenses on the basis of fake certificates and 19 on the basis of fake flying hours in 2011/12, adding that Delhi crime branch had found involvement of three DGCA officials in the fraud.

V.K. Verma, Director, IGRUA, says the arrival of new carriers - IndiGo, Air Deccan, GoAir and Kingfisher Airlines - in 2004/05 resulted in mushrooming of flying schools across the country. "People with two or three small planes had started flying schools. They had arranged for certificates of flying clubs in Indonesia and Malaysia. None of them did 200 hours of flying. The shortage was so huge that all of them got hired," he says.

AMAR ABROL CEO and Managing Director, AirAsia India

Soon pilot training became a murky business - aspiring pilots were duped by flying schools, recruitment officers of leading airlines and middlemen. "They still take money and promise jobs. They dangle a carrot in front of these youngsters and manipulate them. We do not have good flying schools. The existing ones are just about good to teach; they cannot produce outstanding pilots," says Martin. Following the boom period that lasted seven years, things became worse. Says Vivek Nair, Secretary, Federation of Indian Pilots, and a captain in Air India: "In the struggling phase that began in 2011, the airlines fired pilots and re-negotiated their contract terms."

On a Wing and a Prayer

Institutes that are competent have also had limited success. For example, CAE Inc. - a Canadian training services company that trains over 120,000 pilots every year through its network of schools across the globe - was aggressive on the Indian market when it set shop, but lost steam along the way.

In a joint venture with the Airports Authority of India, CAE had taken charge of the National Flying Training Institute (NFTI) in 2007 and a year later was awarded a 10-year management contract to run IGRUA for a management fee of about $500,000 every year. It had said that it will make IGRUA profitable within three years on the condition that it will need diesel engine aircraft. It never happened. The institute has a fleet of 24 aircraft that run on aviation gasoline - a fuel that is three times costlier than aviation turbine fuel. "The institute can turn profitable if we replace existing aircraft with diesel engine planes. The existing fleet can be sold in the US market where there's a demand for them," says Verma. The problems for IGRUA have only multiplied given that it has not been paid its dues. "We haven't been paid by the ministry for the past four years. We are raising the course fee from next batch, starting July this year, from Rs32.5 lakh to Rs38 lakh per student, which should reduce the losses," he adds.

That's not all. Till 2008, nearly 75 per cent of IGRUA students were absorbed by Air India. But since then, the state-owned airline has hired only 62 pilots in 2010 and 40 in 2015. FIP's Nair, however, says that students from IGRUA are in demand. "Airlines may not go to the campus for recruitment but when it comes to the open market, IGRUA students are preferred over other candidates."

Doing It Right

Aviation is a serious business and airlines can ill-afford to take risks. Therefore, they have become more stringent in their selection process. IndiGo's pilot hiring process, for example, consists of cadet programme, lateral hiring of senior pilots, and selection through open market.

As part of its cadet programme, the airline has tied up with two training institutes - UK-based CTC Aviation and CAE - from where they identify 18-19 year olds, and then train them for CPL in India, while type-rating is mostly done in cities such as Dubai, Brussels, Madrid. By the time these candidates are 22, they are ready to qualify as co-pilots.

While CAE works with over 25 leading airlines, IndiGo has set the bar higher than the regulatory requirements and has separate guidelines on how training needs to be conducted. Even the entrance test is jointly monitored. For example, while IndiGo insists on 2,500 flying hours to become a line training captain, DGCA rules put it at 1,500 hours.

"There's a rigorous method of selecting training schools. It includes understanding their infrastructure, faculty and logistics, besides personal visits to look at the standards. We are exploring more institutes. We need continuous influx of cadets who can become captains. For an airline of our size, we have to eventually stop relying on lateral hiring," says Sukhjit S. Pasricha, Vice President, Human Resources, IndiGo. The airline is adding 300 cadets each year to its existing pilot strength of 1,900.

Pain Points

It is not easy to be a pilot in India - costly training, stringent regulatory requirements, medical obligations and a list of other occupational hazards have deterred people from pursuing a career as a pilot. In several countries such as Australia and Britain, there are tax rebates on loans for pilot training. In India, similar mechanisms are still in the works.

Some pilots argue that their working conditions are going from bad to worse. For instance, in 2015, the civil aviation ministry had proposed that commander pilots should be removed from the workmen category under the Industrial Disputes Act. Such a move could affect pilots as they can no longer form trade unions, their salaries can be modified without prior notice and they cannot file an appeal to the labour commissioner against employers. The proposal was later struck down.

ROSHAN JOSHI Senior Vice President, Flight Operations, Vistara (Photo: Vivan Mehra)

In addition, pilots are bound by the law to serve a six-month notice before quitting. The rationale is that if 10 pilots leave at one go, the airline and passengers will suffer. The regulation is unique to India. Some airlines wanted to increase the notice period to one year but the proposal has been trashed. The medical standards followed in India are also much higher than global standards.

"Airlines are sweating aircraft for more hours which is increasing the working hours for pilots," says a commander of a leading airline. In November, a bunch of Jet Airways pilots reported sick after the airline introduced a new automated roster that inadequately accounted for travel fatigue.

Pasricha of IndiGo, however, believes in flexible contracts. "We offer them 6-7 options. They can choose their work schedule; whether they want less flying, more flying, days of flying and leave patterns. For instance, if somebody wants to fly for 11 weeks and take two weeks off, or somebody wants to fly for five months and take a month off." Amar Abrol, CEO, AirAsia India, agrees. The carrier currently flies to metro and semi-metro cities including Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru and Hydera-bad. "Since there are no layovers, our pilots come back to their home cities in the evening. Most other airlines have stopovers."

The boom-and-bust cycle in the aviation sector is closely linked with those at the yoke of an aircraft. The going might still be tough, but hope it gives wings to their dreams. ~


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