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At India’s largest airline, the most crucial skill is not one that’s taught at IIMs

REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
How does working with the largest Indian airline feels like?
  • Niharika Sharma
By Niharika Sharma

Reporter based in New Delhi.

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

Indian aviation has, for long, been plagued by a dearth of pilots, which has hampered the fleet expansion plans of many airlines.

Between 2017 and 2019, hiring of pilots in India rose 88%, show official data from the ministry of civil aviation. However, this is not enough to meet the additional requirement of 17,000 pilots in the next 10 years, according to a 2019 report by the Sydney-based aviation market intelligence firm CAPA.

The issue came to the fore in February 2019 when the scarcity of pilots forced the country’s leading carrier, IndiGo, to cancel as many as 30 flights a day. It tried to make up for the shortfall by aggressively hiring expatriates.

A year on, the carrier says it has tided over the problem. “At the moment IndiGo is not affected…we had difficulties in the past because hiring a pilot isn’t an easy job. You can’t just hire a pilot like you hire a marketing director,” said Raj Raghavan, senior vice-president and head of human resources, IndiGo.

Raghavan, an HR veteran who has worked with the likes of Amazon and Genpact, says the grounding of Jet Airways came as a blessing in disguise for head hunters. “We hired about 400 people from Jet…no airline has been able to hire that kind of a number.”

In a conversation with Quartz, he talked about the jobs outlook in the aviation industry, and the work environment at IndiGo. Edited excerpts.

What is that one job that would be the most crucial to IndiGo in the future? 

There are over 70 different kinds of jobs at IndiGo, from baggage handling and airport security to network planning. Choosing the most crucial is not easy. I’ll come to the skill that is most in demand, which is network planning. An airline’s network is as important as its revenue management capability. Network planning is basically about which sectors an airline will fly in, and at what frequency. This also helps in determining aircraft utilisation. The more time the planes are in the air, the better it is for managing costs.

How will you hire a person for network planning? What are the challenges? 

Network planning cannot be learnt through a course, like an MBA. A lot of it is acquired through experience. We can’t go to IIMs and ask for a network planner, nobody teaches that. What you need is the numerical ability to understand quantitative analysis.

Availability of slots (at airports) are important to determine what sectors you plan to fly to. For instance, you’ll think there is a great opportunity to fly from Delhi to Colombo (in Sri Lanka). Both these nations have bilateral agreements over how many planes can land in each of these countries and, accordingly, slots are allocated to airlines through a certain bidding process.

“We can’t go to IIMs and ask for a network planner, nobody teaches that.”

Thereafter, you need to determine how your planes’ utilisation will happen. If you fly at night, then that will impact the productivity of pilots and cabin crew. In most countries, including India, there is a tightly regulated work-hour rhythm for both the corporate crew and cabin crew and all of this is a part of network planning. Also, let’s say a pilot needs to fly 1,000 hours a year. This needs to be allotted appropriately. The pilot can’t fly 1,000 hours in six months and not be doing anything for the next six.

A network planner has a key role to play in determining not just what sectors to fly to, but also in how people are utilised efficiently.

Indian aviation is facing a shortage of pilots. How has this affected you?  

Pilots are like oil to the airline industry. For instance, a plane like Airbus A320 needs a captain and a first officer but if you are flying a longer range plane like an Airbus A330, or if its an intercontinental flight, you need more pilots. We have had issues with pilot shortage before, but we have been very thoughtful about talent acquisition.

With Jet Airways shutting down, there is an oversupply of professionals. Have salaries come under pressure?

I don’t think there is an oversupply. A huge demand was already there. Pilots can be categorised into captains and first officers. There isn’t any dearth of first officers, but there is a dearth of captains.

“There isn’t any dearth of first officers, but there is a dearth of captains.”

We hired about 400 people from Jet. The airline’s grounding came as a blessing in disguise because no airline company was ever able to hire in such huge numbers. Jet’s pilots are quite sought-after since they have flown for long periods. However, you also need to invest a lot in terms of training.

Some of the pilots who flew an Airbus 330 aircraft may find it easier to fly an Airbus 320, but it isn’t the same for everyone. It isn’t like you leave your job one day, and the next day you can start working at IndiGo. Pilots experienced in flying an Airbus 330, required four months training to start flying with us. And then they had to get their licences renewed and certified again from DGCA (Director General of Civil aviation, the sector regulator).

I don’t think compensation packages have been impacted. It hasn’t gone down at least at IndiGo.

Troubles at Indian airlines have tarnished the industry’s image in recent years, has that made it harder for companies such as IndiGo to attract good talent?

The industry continues to be a place professionals want to be part of. It’s true that some airlines had troubles, but that can happen in any industry. For example, in automobiles there have been losses at auto-component companies and the manufacturers. The same is the case in financial services, and telecom. Aviation is no different. It’s an industry that has a very high reliance on safety and costs and those who can’t manage the costs face troubles. I do not agree that it has impacted the sector’s image.

Do you think artificial intelligence (AI) can take over traditional jobs like that of ground staff at airports?

Fungible jobs that do not require intense training can be taken over by AI. However, some of these jobs require special training. For instance, in an AAI (Airports Authority of India) airport like Chennai, you need to be a certified scanner for checking flyers’ luggage. The job of a loader also needs special training…these require human intelligence.

What are the qualities you look for, when you hire?

Competence in the job is the minimum requirement. Then I look for attitude. Customer service is an attitude, to be able to work in a team is an attitude. To have a point of view, and be respectable to others is all part of attitude.

What initiatives have been launched by IndiGo to upskill its workforce and enhance efficiency?

The big components of the HR function at IndiGo are learning and development. We have training centres known as IFly, one in Gurugram and the other in Bengaluru. There are around 1,400 people training for about 70 different courses. Some are regular training programmes, while others are soft skills training programmes among others.

Have IndiGo’s employees been impacted by the ongoing disagreement between its promoters? 

I don’t think it’s affecting our employees at all. The promoters have their own ways of handling it. It does not bother us. We are here to do our jobs and to safely manage our planes and to serve customers.

How seriously does IndiGo take the mental health of its employees?

A lot of the training is focussed on keeping the mind clear with yoga. We have started using music as a way to calm the mind. So, we are experimenting a lot. We also have a professional arrangement with an external firm One Health. Our employees can contact their experts in order to sort out issues that are bothering their mental health. The practice is completely confidential. Not even the HR knows the details.

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