Indian Aviation Industry : Plagued by Staff Crunch

PTI, Apr 3, 2024, 9:51 AM IST

Monday (April 1, 2024), brought bad news for India’s aviation industry as Vistara airline—owned by Tata Group and Singapore Airlines and soon to be merged with Tata-owned Air India—said it was compelled to cut close to 50 flights to deal with a shortage of pilots and crew, while more than 150 flights operating across its network faced inordinate delays. The airline had faced similar disruptions last month. Sources in the airline said Vistara was set to cancel around 60 flights even on Tuesday.

Reuters quoted a company spokesperson as saying, “We’ve had a significant number of flight cancellations and delays over the past few days because of various reasons, including unavailability of crew members.” One way in which the company is dealing with this staff shortage is by using larger-body aircraft, including the wide-body Boeing-787-9 Dreamliner and A321neo, on certain domestic routes “to accommodate more passengers wherever possible”.

Reasons for these Disruptions

The airline’s flight disruptions follow close on the heels of its announcement that it would adopt Air India’s salary structure as one of the prerequisites for the merger of the two airlines. The salary structure of Air India’s pilots is based on a minimum of 40 assured flying hours against Vistara’s pay based on 70 assured flying hours. This step has attracted criticism from several pilots and aviation safety experts. And a large number of Vistara’s pilots reported sick.

The ongoing expansion in India’s aviation sector is being described as a remarkable and unprecedented phenomenon. According to experts, the shortage of pilots is a more significant and complex issue than earlier anticipated. According to the president of the Airline Pilots’ Association of India, there will be a minimum pilot shortage of 20 per cent to 30 per cent for airlines.

According to data from the Centre for Aviation (CAPA), India’s commercial airlines are projected to nearly double their fleet size to around 1,400 aircraft by fiscal 2029-2030. To operate this expanded fleet, the country will require a minimum of 10,900 additional pilots by 2030, which translates to approximately 1,600 new pilots annually. In the previous year, the regulatory authority issued 1,272 licences for commercial pilots.

For an Indian airline, expanding its fleet of aircraft is a somewhat simple task, but to staff an expanded fleet is a significant challenge. The country’s leading airlines, IndiGo and Air India, besides the newly set up Akasa Air, have placed substantial orders for new planes. According to one estimate, Tata group-owned Air India is poised to induct one aircraft every week throughout the entire year, in a record-breaking expansion of its fleet.

In order to enhance flight safety and alleviate pilot fatigue, the duty hours for pilots have been reduced. To sustain their existing level of operations, airlines will require 20 per cent more pilots. To maintain regular operations, an airline typically requires between 12 and 14 pilots for a single-aisle aircraft and about 25 pilots for a twin-aisle aircraft.

Of the estimated total fleet of 789 aircraft in India’s airlines for this year, around 150 to 200 planes are currently grounded due to engine and supply chain limitations. As these aircraft gradually resume operations, the shortage of pilots is expected to increase. As India’s airlines have placed orders for more than 1,100 new aircraft, with both single and twin aisles, the approximate number of flight crew needed is expected to touch several thousand.

More Flying Institutes Needed

Aviation experts have emphasized the necessity to set up additional flying institutes, the establishment of airline-owned training facilities and the exploration of alternative options—such as hiring foreign pilots. Currently, there are fewer than 100 foreign nationals working as pilots in India, according to DGCA data. However, the challenge lies in retaining talent within the country and this issue is closely tied to providing tax incentives. Additionally, cadet pilots also face their own set of challenges and difficulties.

As of November 2022, there were 34 Flying Training Organizations (FTOs) approved by the DGCA in India, operating at 52 bases. These FTOs are managed by both the central and state governments, as well as the private sector. Additionally, there are approximately six approved aviation training centres equipped with 40 simulators. Notably, private flying academies are now also obtaining licences and airlines are actively pursuing their training initiatives.

However, despite the positive outlook presented by data and plans, there are several significant challenges plaguing the aviation industry, as highlighted by senior members of the crew and cadet pilots. Captain Sam Thomas, president of the Airline Pilots’ Association of India, with extensive flying experience, told The Hindu that the current pilot shortage was primarily due to the difficulty in operating flying training centres, as corrupt officials enforced outdated regulations. The medical standards, overseen by Indian Air Force (IAF) doctors, often result in grounding of civil pilots.

Challenges for Cadet Pilots

Cadet pilots, in general, encounter several challenges. The primary concerns revolve around the high cost of pilot training, which averages close to Rs 1 crore. Additionally, flying clubs often raise their charges unexpectedly, without providing prior notice in the absence of specific regulations from the DGCA regarding training costs.

Airlines have also started charging cadets for type rating, significantly increasing the cost of training. A course that originally costs Rs 18 lakh can escalate to nearly Rs 1 crore with additional fees imposed by airlines. Furthermore, many airlines now expect pilots to fund their own type rating, which is a self-sponsored training programme.

The Airports Authority of India’s (AAI’s) recently launched website for integrated flight planning stipulates that cadet pilots must pay for each filed cross-country flight plan and checks to controlled aerodromes. Previously, cadets’ flight planning for general aviation and flight schools came totally free of cost. What this means for the cadets’ job prospects as a pilot is an uncertain future, since, in emergency situations, when an airline shuts shop, only the more experienced pilots are accorded priority in the job market.

Cadet pilots also emphasise that the training experience in foreign countries differs significantly from that in India. They note that cadet pilots in foreign training programmes have greater freedom in planning their flights, whereas cadets in India face restrictions on certain manoeuvres and landing locations.

Most of India’s training bases are located at uncontrolled aerodromes without the facility of trusted navigation aids. Cadet pilots, hence, are forced to depend upon controlled aerodromes for their instrument training. Paradoxically, these controlled aerodromes, themselves, are under huge strain to serve the existing commercial flights, which queers the pitch for cadet pilots’ training aspirations.

A senior commander, with over 16,000 flying hours and 35 years of experience, says the training facilities in India are inadequate and highlights the need for strict monitoring of pilot cadet programmes, including transparent disclosure of the fees charged. It is deemed unfair and unethical for large airlines to profit from trainees who take loans to pursue a career.

Maintaining a balanced and harmonious instructor-student relationship on the ground is crucial for avoiding undesirable consequences. Examinations are often conducted without adequate preparation and planning. However, the introduction of the DGCA’s e-governance platform/portal has simplified the handling of various issues, particularly those related to licence issuance and renewal.

Captain A (Mohan) Ranganathan, a former airline instructor pilot, aviation safety adviser and member of the Civil Aviation Safety Advisory Council, told The Hindu that the pilot shortage was particularly severe in the category of captain. While it is possible to train numerous commercial pilot’s licence-holders as co-pilots, it entails careful and comprehensive planning.

Unfortunately, airlines are compromising on training and safety protocols. The existing civil aviation requirements for scheduled transport were formulated at a time when flight operations were less frequent and the number of aircraft was limited. Additionally, there are issues pertaining to gaps in training programmes and a shortage of qualified trainers in the industry.

Pilot Shortage Hits Training

Operations and training are significantly affected by pilot shortage. According to a senior commander with extensive flying experience and expertise as a trainer/examiner on the Airbus A320 simulator, there have been efforts to lower the minimum requirements for promoting co-pilots to the position of commander due to the shortage. This could potentially lead to less experienced pilots being in command, which could lower safety standards.

Currently, a significant number of pilots in India lack training in CAT-III operations, with approximately 50 per cent of the country’s 10,000 pilots falling in this category. To mitigate weather-related delays, airlines can consider implementing fog-limited schedules, which would help protect specific sections of their network.

Costly Recruitment Process

The process of recruiting and training pilots in India is lengthy and costly. Educational requirements for candidates are higher in India compared to other regions, yet the quality of instructors and aircraft is often subpar. Training institutes suffer from inadequate equipment and are susceptible to corruption. IndiGo Airlines, Air India and Akasa Air are increasing their efforts to enhance training facilities.

Even though India is the third-largest domestic aviation market, it remains relatively small in comparison. The fleet size of American Airlines, alone, surpasses that of all airlines in India combined. China, too, has a significantly larger number of pilots—approximately six times that in India.

As the number of aircraft increases and training costs rise, airlines are pressuring regulators to reduce pilot flight duty time limitations for maximizing productivity. In this context, the importance of a structured, planned and regulated approach to the expansion of the aviation industry could not be over-estimated.

Considering the escalating issue of pilot shortage and its accompanying repercussions, the aviation industry must engage in collective brainstorming to devise effective and feasible solutions. It is crucial to have a clear understanding of the challenges at hand and chart a well-defined path towards implementing viable remedies.

Girish Linganna
Aerospace & Defence Analyst

( The author Girish Linganna of this article is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru. He is also Director of ADD Engineering Components, India, Pvt. Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany. You can reach him at: [email protected])

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