Air India’s jumbo order bares pilot pinch

Already hit by a crew shortage, the airline group will need almost 7,000-8,000 pilots over the coming years to fly the new planes it has ordered

Updated - February 19, 2023 04:54 pm IST

Published - February 19, 2023 12:43 am IST - New Delhi

The flying crew shortage is already taking its toll with pilots complaining of rising levels of fatigue, a less-than-reassuring trend in an industry where the margins for safety are negligible. File

The flying crew shortage is already taking its toll with pilots complaining of rising levels of fatigue, a less-than-reassuring trend in an industry where the margins for safety are negligible. File | Photo Credit: Reuters

Air India group’s jumbo order of 470 aircraft has turned the spotlight on an equally big problem plaguing India’s roller-coaster aviation industry — an existing shortage of pilots that is set to drastically widen.

Amid all the jubilation over the erstwhile flag carrier’s historic order, the big question on everyone’s mind within the airline and the larger industry is, “Where will the 7,000-8,000 pilots needed to fly these aircraft come from?”, especially at a time when India’s airlines have been dogged by delays and cancellations and even forced to look for parking space for their planes due to a paucity of cockpit crew to fly them. And the flying crew shortage is already taking its toll with pilots complaining of rising levels of fatigue, a less-than-reassuring trend in an industry where the margins for safety are negligible.

Also read | Air India’s 840-aircraft order includes option to buy 370 planes: Official

The order includes 70 wide-bodied or twin-aisle jets: 40 Airbus 350s, 20 Boeing 787s, and 10 Boeing 777-9s, and 400 narrow-bodied aircraft: 210 Airbus 320/ 321Neos and 190 Boeing 737 Maxs, with the planes set to arrive “over the next decade”, according to a social media post by Air India’s Chief Commercial and Transformation Officer Nipun Aggarwal.

As many as 31 aircraft are set to arrive in the second half of 2023, with a large chunk of the remainder due to come in 2025.

Air India recently faced cancellations and delays of its highly remunerative flights to the U.S. and Canada due to a paucity of crew.

“When an airline is forced to cancel 30 flights per day due to pilot shortage, it can incur a loss of ₹3 crore per day, or approximately ₹1,000 crore a year,” says Hemanth D.P., CEO, Asia Pacific Flight Training Academy and ex-chief commercial officer and chief operations officer, GMR Airports. “For an airline that operates 1,500 flights every day, 30 flights is equivalent to 2% of its total flights and a similar percentage in loss in revenue from operations. But at the same time, you are paying support crew to stay home or in a hotel, paying engineering staff and your planes are grounded. Lack of pilots, pushes operational costs up, resulting in airfares rising and harming the airline and end users,” he added. In February 2019, IndiGo was forced to cancel a large number of flights due to pilot shortage.

Also Read | Explained: Why has Air India ordered aircraft in bulk?

Though the new planes are expected to fully replace the airline group’s present fleet strength of almost 200 planes, the industry official said that the substitution would not happen immediately, but over a period of time. “Current fleet is going to run simultaneously for a period of time, and is also being refurbished,” he noted. At the same time, there would be many pilots who would be retiring, he observed, describing the situation as “a nightmare”.

Since the order is staggered over a 10-year period, the delivery of 470 aircraft over this period will mean nearly “three-four aircraft per month. An average of 12 sets of pilots (12 co-pilots and 12 pilots per aircraft) for ultra long haul flights such as to the U.S., and 8.5 sets of pilots for long haul flights such as to Europe, alongside an average of 7 sets of cockpit crew for every narrow body gives a total of nearly 7,000 pilots and co-pilots”, according to a back of the envelope calculation.

To add to the challenge is the fact that Air India has placed an order for A350s which is a new type of aircraft in its fleet, and will require at least 11 days of training to transition from Airbus 320 to 350, but such a pilot can’t be given command of the aircraft and will have to fly as a first officer. Many closely involved with flight operations at some of the leading airlines in the country say this will prove to be an operational challenge as crew cannot be shuffled around from Boeing 777 or 787-9 fleet, say if there are delays due to inclement weather.

According to the DGCA data for 2021-2022, there are a total 8,573 pilots in the country for nearly 700 aircraft. Apart from Air India, IndiGo will receive nearly 500 aircraft already ordered with Airbus, and 17-plane strong recent entrant Air Akasa plans to reach the target of 72 by March 2027, as well as place a “substantial order” for more planes.

A shortage of pilots also has implications for pilot fatigue, an issue often brought up by them, as well as passenger safety.

There is also a massive infrastructure required for training such as simulators and trainers, among others. Air India has five simulators — 3 for widebodies in Mumbai and 2 for the A320 in Hyderabad.

Many say that lucrative offers by middle-east carriers along with incentives such as tax-free income, free children’s education and accommodation as well as mushrooming of new airlines in the region such as the upcoming airline Ria from Saudi Arabia set to launch flights in 2024, as well as rapid expansion by VietJet have drawn pilots in large droves. Airlines like Vistara, which is merging with Air India, have in recent days seen a large number of pilots leave for greener pastures. A lack of career progression for many in airlines such as Air India is another demotivating factor.

Such a dire need for pilots on the one hand is also due to poor standards of flying training organisations (FTOs) in the country. Forty-four-year-old Ashwani Kumar, a keen aviation enthusiast who dreamt of being a pilot and later encouraged his son to become one, has already spent ₹60 lakh on training as well as boarding and lodging for his 19-year-old’s training in Manitoba in Canada, and will be spending another ₹20 lakh when he returns to India before he is eligible to apply for a job with an airline here.

“Safety standards at FTOs are very poor, and at most of them instrument landing approaches are not available and neither is a night landing facility or all-weather conditions needed such as snow for training. Many training academies are over-crowded with one aircraft available for training for up to 30 aspirants” Mr. Kumar, a garment manufacturer in Faridabad says. A complex maze of rules means that once his son returns to India after a year-long training, he will have to spend at least six more months for conversion, type rating (training for a specific type of aircraft) as well as DGCA approvals for the same. There were at least eight accidents at FTOs last year, forcing DGCA to take action against them and their senior officers.

A paucity of simulators, including those with private simulation training centres in the country, forced him to book a slot at least four months before the arrival of his son.

Mr. Hemanth also explains calculations to state that India currently has the capacity to produce about 60-65% of the pilots are actually needed. This will result in aspirants going abroad and a loss of forex of about US$ 70-80 million every year or nearly $1 billion in 10 years. “We must also not forget that aviation has a job multiplier effect of about 6.5 direct and indirect jobs, and these jobs are lost when the trainees go abroad. These lost jobs, forex and tax revenues to the exchequer don’t only damage the industry but the entire economy,” he adds.

Among the various solutions he offers is the need for FTOs to be recognised as a Priority Sector for lending, as often promoters such as him have to declare their own securities as collateral to purchase aircraft, instead of aircraft being recognised as collateral by banks. This also has severely curtailed the growth of the industry, forcing Indian companies to use old planes of over 30 years of vintage and obstructing them from expanding their fleet.

In order to cope with the shortage of staffing at DGCA for increasing the production of Assistant Flight Instructors, he proposes certification by Designated Examiners at FTOs, which can speed up the production of new pilots. He also proposes an increase in manpower and a separate licensing cell for FTOs, as currently, licenses can take up to two months to be issued. 

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