Airline growth story hits turbulence amid acute pilot shortage

July 29, 2018 12:00 am | Updated 04:42 am IST - Mumbai

The government has extended thedeadline to phase out expat pilots

A nagging problem:Pilot shortage has become a structural challenge for Indian carriers.

A nagging problem:Pilot shortage has become a structural challenge for Indian carriers.

The government on Friday extended the deadline for Indian airlines to phase out foreign pilots amid an acute shortage of pilots, specially commanders. The cut off date has now been put off by two years to December 31, 2020

Pilot shortage has become a structural challenge for Indian carriers with hiring of expat pilots becoming harder due to global demand while supply constraints have pushed up salaries and airline unit costs even as the government is bullish on the growth of low cost air travel connecting Tier 2 cities.

In March 2018, India had 6,772 commercial airline pilots (including those on hold pool under training by an airline). According to a report on “Resource Requirements for Indian Airlines” from the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation - India (CAPA India), the requirement will be 16,802 by March 2027. Similarly, India will require 2,541 general aviation pilots, up from the present 1,225, who fly private jets and helicopters.

Growing fleets

“Presently, scheduled Indian airlines have over 7,000 pilots for their combined fleet of over 600 planes. This year itself the shortage is of over 250 pilots. Given the order books of our airlines, 1,100 aircraft are supposed to join in the next seven to eight years that will require over 10,000 additional pilots,” said CEO and Director, CAPA South Asia, Kapil Kaul.

There are 290 expat pilots employed with the domestic airlines. Mr. Kaul explains that these numbers are only for scheduled airlines, with the pilot requirement for charters, regional connectivity players, and private jets being separate.

“These numbers are just a conservative estimate and the requirement will increase with the increasing number of Indian carriers and their wide-body operations. Presently, only Jet Airways and Air India have twin-aisle operations, while Vistara has placed an order for six to ten wide bodies,” he said.

CEO of GoAir Cornelis Vrieswijk in a recent interview said, despite the steep growth of the Indian airline industry, there is no corresponding natural influx of homegrown pilots, especially commanders, in India.

“We have to depend on expatriates. But red tape and stringent regulatory procedures associated with getting an expatriate pilot ready to fly adds to the problem,” he said.

CAPA India pointed out that aircraft were once again being grounded in India due to a shortage of pilots, as was the case 10 years ago and was only likely to increase given an unprecedented aircraft induction schedule. India alone has 1,000 planes on order till 2030.

“Despite a strong global air traffic growth, the aviation industry continues to face a pilot labour supply challenge, raising concern about the existence of a global pilot shortage in the near-term,” Keith Cooper, vice president of Training and Professional Services, Boeing Global Services said.

Yash Tongia, former director, flying training with aviation regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), said India has 35 flying schools with a capacity to train 1,000 pilots a year. And while 350-400 student pilots get trained in India every year, another 400 go abroad. “In 2002, the DGCA issued 200 Commercial Pilot Licences (CPL). This rose to 1,800 in 2016-17. About 800 licences should be issued this year,” Mr. Tongia said.

Further certification

After obtaining their CPL, the pilots can be employed by airlines, but need to be ‘type-rated’ (certified) for a particular type of aircraft such as Airbus, Boeing etc. Airlines like Indigo have been offering a Pilot Cadet Programme for several years and currently charge $37,195 for type rating on its Airbus 320 aircraft. Indigo has tied up with aviation training company CAE that conducts classes in Gondia, Maharashtra.

CAPA India said that while pilot shortage has already begun to affect operations, by 2027, India will need 26,325 cabin crew up from the 11,000 at present.

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