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Can the Indian Air Force solve aviation companies’ pilot crunch?

REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri
Waiting to fly.
  • Niharika Sharma
By Niharika Sharma

Reporter based in New Delhi.

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The Indian government has finally stepped in to help the country’s struggling aviation industry.

Last week, Usha Padhee, the joint secretary in the ministry of civil aviation, discussed with defence personnel the viability of fighter pilots switching over to commercial flying. The plan, if implemented, could help tackle the acute pilot shortage that has been crippling the aviation sector for months now.

Experts say this may be a great idea since the transition from defence to civil aviation is a pretty simple process.

“Air force pilots are trained in key factors including extreme weather conditions and other intense possibilities that commercial pilots need to be acquainted with. All they need is the basic orientation regarding the kind of plane they are required to fly,” a retired IAF (Indian Air Force) officer, who asked not to be named, told Quartz. “Hence, hiring them will save airlines the huge cost and time that goes into training.”

The plan will not only fulfil the current shortage but also expedite future fleet expansion plans of aviation companies.

Not a first

This is certainly not the first time that the IAF has stepped in to help civil aviation companies.

“There are sufficient first officers (co-pilots), but there is an acute shortage of commanders (pilots), which can be met once senior pilots from the IAF are moved to civilian aircraft,” Jitendra Bhargava, former executive director of Air India, told the Hindustan Times. “Air India has taken the help of defence pilots in the past to meet its needs,” he added.

Besides the national carrier, state-owned helicopter service Pawan Hans also signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the IAF, in April 2018, to hire pilots, when it was facing a staff shortage.

Now, private airlines, too, are in the same difficult situation.

The shortage

The issue came to the fore in February this year when India’s leading airline by market share, IndiGo, cancelled over 30 flights a day owing to a pilot crunch. The budget carrier had been adding aircraft rapidly to its fleet since September last year.

The situation has been exasperated with India’s oldest private carrier Jet Airways halting operations, and rivals rushing to add routes and planes to fill the capacity vacuum. GoAir, Vistara, IndiGo, and SpiceJet, together, will add over 100 aircraft in the coming months, which is expected to create a requirement of 1,000 additional pilots.

IndiGo, has so far incurred huge expenses on meeting its pilot shortfall. On May 07, the airline had confirmed that it is roping in expatriate pilots to deal with the situation.

In February, the carrier, had over 3,000 pilots on its payroll, of which over 50 were expats.

“Airlines tried to lower their expat pilot count to reduce costs, from 10.5% in FY14 to 8.1% in FY18, but that’s likely to swell again,” the Centre for Aviation (CAPA), a Sydney-based consultant, noted in a report in February.

However, recruiting from abroad alone won’t solve the crisis.

No respite

CAPA estimates that in 10 years, Indian airlines will have to hire 17,164 pilots. It predicts a 14% shortfall in pilots in the coming decade.

The sector regulator, directorate general of civil aviation (DGCA) requires a first officer to complete 1,500 hours of flying to be eligible to become a commander. Besides, airlines may have additional requirements. For instance, IndiGo mandates 3,000 hours of flying to become eligible for the post.

“The sector does not have sufficient number of commanders. While first officers are available and airlines have been spending enough to train them, the conditions to promote the professionals act as an obstacle to fill the void,” said an IndiGo executive on condition of anonymity.

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