Friday, 9 February 2007

Paucity of pilots triggers aviation war

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 02 Feb 2007

When Wing Commander Rajiv Kothiyal resigned in 2002 as one of the most qualified test pilots in the Indian Air Force (IAF) and quickly found a flying job in a start up airline, Deccan Airways, he felt he had won a jackpot. With no new airlines and no new aircraft, India's dormant aviation landscape was strewn with young, newly licensed pilots from India's flying clubs who couldn't get a job. The four established airlines --- Air India, Indian Airlines, Jet and Sahara --- already had their quota of five co-pilots and five commanders for each aircraft they owned. Just four years later, Kothiyal, now Chief Pilot of Deccan Airways, shakes his head ruefully at how much things have changed.

Deccan Airways has expanded from a single aircraft to 41; four hundred pilots are on the rolls to utilise the fleet optimally. Jostling for pilots with Deccan are equally aggressive start-ups like Kingfisher, GoAir, Spicejet and Paramount. Today, India's 14 scheduled airlines operate more than three hundred aircraft between them. Every month the figure rises, and each aircraft that comes in brings along a demand for ten more pilots. Compounding the pilot shortfall are another 350 aircraft owned by non-scheduled airlines and private entities.

In this sellers' market, a Commerical Pilot's Licence (CPL) and a DGCA certification is enough to land a job that pulls in three to four lakh rupees a month. The requirement of junior co-pilots is largely met through a growing supply of newly trained pilots from Indian flying clubs (see graphic), supplemented by increasing numbers training abroad. At a premium, though, are the senior pilots needed to captain airline flights. Filling this gap are foreign pilots with 1000-1500 hours of flying experience, mostly from East Europe, Australia and Latin America. Deccan Airways alone has hired more than a hundred foreign pilots, paying them a package of 10,000 dollars a month, 50% more than their Indian counterparts.

Observing this situation is Wing Commander Devesh Kakar (name and location changed on officer's request) handling flight administration at an IAF base in Allahabad. Although Kakar has logged 1200 hours on IAF aircraft, some 19 years of incident-free flying, that alone does not guarantee career progression in the steep promotion pyramid of the defence services. Kakar needs only to pass a simple DGCA conversion exam, for a civil license that could translate into a ten-fold jump over his IAF salary. He is exactly the person that Indian airlines are desperate for: experienced in flying in Indian conditions, adept at dealing with Indian situations and people, and considerably cheaper to employ than pilots from abroad.

But there's a hitch. Facing its own shortfall of over 200 pilots, IAF boss Air Chief Marshall SP Tyagi has clamped down on letting pilots leave service. After his predecessor, Air Chief Marshall S Krishnaswamy let an unprecedented 250 pilots leave in the period before he handed over charge, IAF pilots today have been effectively locked in. Before Kakar's resignation is accepted, he will have to be rejected for further promotion by three separate promotion boards. Unlike any other employer, the Indian military can refuse to allow its personnel to resign and the courts have always upheld its decision. Flight Lieutenant Shakul Tyagi, a decorated pilot represented by top-gun lawyer Abhishek Singhvi, recently took the air force to court, effectively alleging violation of fundamental rights. The Delhi High Court ruled in favour of the IAF.

For the airline industry, keenly aware of the benefits of a lower pilot wage bill, this is bad news. The civil aviation administration, searching feverishly for managers, instructors and pilots to support India's burgeoning aviation growth, tip-toes around the Air Chief's decision, but continues to eye this manpower pool. Civil Aviation Secretary, Ajay Prasad, who recently employed a retired air force officer to run the prestigious Sanjay Gandhi National Flying Academy, says. "We need pilots as of yesterday… We are saying that pilots who are available to be released from the air force, we should be able to give them a greater role in civilian traffic. We can fly a person who is medically fit up to the age of 65 and air force people retire much earlier, so we can certainly use them as instructors and… even as online pilots."

But Air Chief Marshall SP Tyagi points out that if civil aviation is expanding, the IAF is as well. The air chief told Business Standard, "Pilots are not a commodity that gets produced at short notice. I can get a civilian pilot from the market; the same is not true of a combat pilot. He's an officer, a highly trained military leader. If he's got ten years of service it will take me ten years to produce another
one."

Adding to the demand for Indian pilots is the language problem that many expatriate pilots face in talking to Indian air traffic controllers (ATCs). With instructions being snapped out in a variety of regional accents, ATC commands often have to be repeated, leading to loss of time. In at least one case, the mid air collision in 1996 near Delhi between a Saudi Arabian Airlines and a Kazakhstan Airlines aircraft, it has led to disaster. The Ramesh Chandra Lahoti commission that probed that crash found that the Kazakh pilot's inability to understand the directions of the ATC placed him on a collision course with the Saudi airliner.

Deccan Airline's Chief Pilot, Rajiv Kothiyal, who guards against this by putting all his airline's expatriate pilots through extensive familiarisation training, says it is this reason why he always prefers an Indian pilot, whether civil or military. "The accent is different and there is bound to be some communication gap between the controllers because the controllers in India speak very fast, and if they speak fast this (expatriate pilot) may not understand."

The IAF's inability to release its pilots may be infuriating for civil airlines today, but aviation consultant Tulsi Kesharwani believes that this could work well for pilots in the long term. "If just one airline folds up today and returns aircraft that have been taken on lease, you could quickly have a situation where there are more pilots than are needed."

But for an aviation industry that is grappling with the problems of today, and for air force pilots who feel aggrieved by the IAF's unwillingness to let them go, this is an entirely hypothetical situation. The problem is today.

India's pilot factory: ramping up production

Pilots needed: 3000-5000 (over next 5 years)
Annual supply: (from Indian flying institutions: DGCA figures)
2003 : 386
2004 : 499
2005 : 822
2006/07 : 1147

Indian Air Force pilot shortages

Authorised : 3278 pilots

Presently posted: 3068 pilots

Shortfall : 210 pilots

Released from 2003-05: 246 pilots

Released in 2006: 19 pilots

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