On navigating the national carrier, in good times and bad
With the Air India management and the agitating pilots affiliated to the Indian Pilots' Guild refusing to budge from their stand, there seems to be no end in sight for the impasse. Post the Delhi High Court's indictment of the strike on May 30, there is little, if at all any public sympathy left for the agitating pilots. However, it wasn't always like this. A sense of thrill and fascination were attached to the profession. The story that largely remains untold is how these pilots stuck it out even as the glamour and the sheen associated with the national carrier was steadily wearing out. A sense of pride associated with being a part of the national carrier and hopefulness about the future of Air India persists.
In the 1990s and even in early 2000s, every pilot aspired to fly the national carrier. A senior captain with Air India, who joined the airlines after graduating from the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Udaan Academy in Rae Bareilly in 1996, recounts the days when only the crème de la crème of the pilot fraternity would get into Air India. The captain said that the challenges of flying to international long haul destinations propelled him to join Air India.
“While flying international flights, you are away from the country for prolonged periods of 15 to 20 days a month. There are challenges of fatigue and homesickness. But working in Air India provides you with the opportunity to fly wide body aircraft over a number of countries. In a flight from Delhi to New York when you are flying over the Atlantic there is no landing available for two hours at night.”
With the crisis in the aviation sector, the pilots have more responsibilities than ever before to maximise productivity and minimise fuel consumption. The captain explained, “With the increasing costs of Aviation Turbine Fuel (ATF), there is pressure on pilots to conserve fuel on long haul routes. The average number of hours that a pilot has to put in has gone up to 80 – 100 hours now from about 30 – 40 hours in the 1990s.”
While the steady deterioration of the health of the national carrier from 2007 onwards saw a migration of pilots to private carriers, some of them like the captain, stayed on. The captain explained, “About 15 of my colleagues from Air India joined Emirates last year. The total emoluments paid by the international airlines, including Emirates, Etihad and Qatar are 30 to 40 per cent more. I had an offer from Emirates last year but I stayed on because I wanted to be based in India. I still feel proud to be associated with the national carrier.”
About the Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh's proposal to hire new pilots to replace the agitating ones, the captain said, “Contrary to popular belief, there is a dearth of trained commanders with enough number of flying hours who can fly on international long haul routes. The present lot of unemployed pilots are mostly recent graduates or trainees with 250 hours of flying experience. You need at least 3000 hours of flying experience to be able to fly a wide body aircraft.”
A young co-pilot who joined Air India in February 2008, at a time when the rot had already set in, does not regret his decision. He recounts some of the highs of his four- year- long career with Air India, “I was part of the team of pilots manning the four special flights engaged in evacuating Indians stuck in Japan after the earthquake in 2011.”
The sentiment attached to the national carrier is echoed even by pilots of the rival sibling Indian Airlines. A senior commander with Indian Airlines said, “Which private airline will take out nine seats from an aircraft to carry army jawans from Srinagar? I remember carrying the first load of passengers after the bombings in the Indian embassy in Kabul in 2008 with mines planted on both sides of the airfield.”
With a steady decline in the glamour quotient associated with being a pilot, it is no longer a coveted profession. The senior captain with Air India sounds a word of caution for young aspiring pilots, “Given the grim situation all around, one has to be passionate about flying to stick it out.”