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Redbird’s grounding not first sign of India’s flight training woes, but has made pilot shortage dire

New Delhi: India’s pilot training woes are in the spotlight after the Directorate General of Civil Aviation suspended operations at Redbird Aviation, the country’s largest flying training organisation (FTO). However, this isn’t the first time in even the past few years that the aviation training ecosystem in India has been found to be plagued by deficiencies.

The DGCA had in October suspended flight training operations at Redbird Aviation following two crashes. Although the suspension was to do with the maintenance of the planes being used, it has thrown into serious doubt whether India’s pilot training apparatus can now cater to the demand for pilots from the airlines — the largest of which are rapidly expanding their fleet sizes. 

India had more than 40 FTOs in 2015. However, a year later, this fell to 28 following a crackdown by the DGCA on organisations that did not meet its specified requirements, according to a report by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture, tabled in December 2022. 

While this number increased to 36 FTOs by August 2023, this is well below the doubling that the parliamentary panel had anticipated by December 2023. “From 28 FTOs in March 2016, the number of FTOs is likely to increase to 43 by December 2022 and to 58 by December 2023, that is, an over 100 percent increase in a matter of two years,” the report said, attributing the statement to the Ministry of Civil Aviation.

The report added that Indian FTOs, including eight FTOs under state governments and 26 privately owned ones, had 229 aircraft for flight training as of 30 November, 2021.

“Yes, there is a shortage of pilots, particularly in the post-COVID world,” Khushbeg Jattana, general manager India, Simaero India, told ThePrint. “Given that Indian airlines have placed huge aircraft orders, this requirement will only go up.” 

Simaero India is a subsidiary of Simaero, a Paris-headquartered full-flight simulator operation and pilot training provider. It is in the process of setting up operations in India with a training facility in Delhi that will have eight simulator bays for aircraft such as the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737 MAX. The facility will be fully operational by Q3 2024, said Jattana.

With IndiGo and Air India together placing orders for a total of 970 planes in less than five months this year, the shortage of pilots has emerged as a core issue for airlines in India.

The high demand for pilots in India is not exactly new information. The parliamentary panel estimated that there would be a growing requirement of around 1,000 pilots every year in the near future in the country. US aircraft maker Boeing, too, estimates that India may require 31,000 pilots over the next 20 years, or nearly 1,500 pilots every year.

However, what makes this high demand for pilots more stark is the fact that the supply has fallen woefully short — even before the travails of Redbird Aviation.

At the moment, the total number of pilots employed by Indian airlines stood at around 10,000, according to information provided by Minister of State for Civil Aviation V.K. Singh to Parliament in March this year. Those employed by non-scheduled operators numbered around 500, he added.

Jattana said, “First, during the pandemic, globally only 50 percent of required pilots could be produced due to travel restrictions impacting training etc. Then, a lot of pilots did not return to duty post the pandemic following retirement. Another factor, which may not be a huge number but still should be considered, is that many pilots were grounded as they were medically unfit to fly due to aftereffects of Covid.”

Additionally, trained Indian pilots are also poached by Middle Eastern airlines, which is adding to the shortage, he said.

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Indian vs foreign FTOs

In its report, the parliamentary committee highlighted the “acute shortage of skilled manpower and proper training institutes” in the civil aviation industry, which has the potential to create employment opportunities for the youth. 

It recommended that, in view of the Atmanirbhar Bharat policy of the Indian government, “sufficient Flight Training Organisations (FTOs) may be established in various parts of the country to ensure that our boys and girls are not going to foreign countries to get pilot training”.

Foreign pilot training institutes have several things going for them that make them more attractive than Indian ones — the absence of red tape, faster processes to get a licence, etc — despite being more expensive.

Discussing the challenge faced by Indian airlines in swiftly training young pilots to address the current shortage and meet rising demand, Jattana added that establishing local training centres offers significant benefits, saving time, reducing costs, and providing market-specific training. 

“This strategic move ensures a more efficient and tailored approach to pilot training, addressing both the immediate shortage and the long-term growth needs of Indian aviation. My estimate is potential cost savings of up to 30 percent and a time reduction of 20 percent for airlines opting for these local training facilities,” he said.

However, pilots who have graduated from the Indian schools vouch for their quality.

“In terms of quality, the training in India is on par with global peers,” one such pilot flying with an Indian low-cost carrier told ThePrint on the condition of anonymity. “But due to the lack of enough FTOs and flying clubs in the country, those who can afford it prefer to go abroad and get their training. The government needs to help build more capacity for aviation training in the country.”

In addition to lack of infrastructure, the pilot added that getting pilot training is quicker and a more hassle-free experience outside India.

“Flight training tends to be shorter outside, for example in the US. There are a lot of steps  There are also a lot more rules and regulations…processes that need to be followed in India for getting a CPL. There is a lot of bureaucratic red tape which makes the process of getting certification cumbersome and lengthy… Although, now the government has made a lot of processes online, which will help in ease of doing business.”

Echoing similar views, Jattana said, “Lack of infrastructure in terms of training schools is where India has always lagged behind. Even today, nearly 40 percent of pilots go abroad for training.”

The parliamentary committee, too, noted that, typically, around 40 percent of Indian commercial pilot licence (CPL) holders do their flying training at a foreign FTO. 

“Based on stakeholder feedback, the cost of doing flying training abroad is around Rs. 1.2-1.5 crore per cadet,” the report said. “This works out to a direct loss of foreign exchange to the tune of Rs 500 crore annually. The multiplier effect in terms of loss of revenue and jobs on account of this exodus is far higher and needs to be reversed, under the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan.”

In India, getting a CPL may cost about Rs 50 lakh on an average depending on the institute.

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No shortage of pilots, says govt

Meanwhile, the government maintains that there is no shortage of pilots in India. 

In a written reply to the Rajya Sabha in August 2022, V.K. Singh said there was no shortage of pilots but admitted that there was, however, a marginal shortage of commanders (the captain or pilot in command of an aircraft) on certain types of aircraft and that this was being managed by utilising foreign pilots through Foreign Aircrew Temporary Authorization (FATA). 

As of March 2023, 67 foreign nationals were employed with various airlines in India. 

A total of 993 CPLs were issued in 2023 till 24 August, according to data shared by Singh in a written response to the Lok Sabha. According to the data, 394 CPLs for aeroplanes and helicopters were issued by the DGCA in 2015, which increased to 537 in 2016,  552 in 2017, 640 in 2018, 744 in 2019, 578 in 2020, 862 in 2021 and 1,165 in 2022.

(Edited by Rohan Manoj)

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Source: The Print

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