Monday, September 27, 2021

Staring in the face of Pilot Shortage

by Vijay Grover

While the Civil aviation industry in India is preparing to restore operations to pre-pandemic levels, the industry faces several challenges.

The passenger traffic, which saw a steep drop in 2020 and second quarter of 2021, is finally seeing a steady growth. The domestic passenger traffic, which was lowest in May 2021 at 21.15 lacs, rose to 31.13 lacs in June 2021. According to the estimates, the figure has crossed over 40 lacs as on 22 July. Industry captains are hopeful that the aviation sector, which transported an average of 78 lac passengers every month in the first quarter of 2021, could see a steep rise to the levels in the beginning October 2021.

However, the pandemic has affected airlines most of which are experiencing several operational issues. Prior to the pandemic, Indian airlines employed several foreign pilots. In the last two years, many of these pilots have not seen their contracts renewed given the large scale of dip in operations.

A senior Pilot with Indigo told IADB, “We currently fly 50 to 60% of the flights compared to the pre pandemic times so the situation is manageable, but moving forward, if the number of flights increase due to a surge in passenger numbers, airlines will face challenges.

The pandemic has created turmoil due to a lack of certainty and the absence of uniform international travel policies. The cloud of the third wave hangs low, hence the recruitment of pilots which is a time consuming process will be affected.”

The peculiarity is not limited to one or two airlines; there are several airlines, which are faced with such a dilemma. The civil aviation industry in India has an annual requirement of approx. one thousand pilots, but only 200-300 pilots are being trained each year in the country, leading to a shortage of type-rated commanders and an increased dependence on foreign pilots.

Even in its latest reports tabled in the Parliament, the Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture has asked the Ministry of Civil Aviation to give serious thought to setting up new institutes for pilot training and to revamp the existing institutes by providing modern simulators while augmenting capacity for the intake of students. Terming the shortage of pilots as a matter of concern, the committee observed that India has sub-optimal capacity and availability in terms of simulators, to train the required number of pilots.

According to the Parliamentary committee’s data, 1,882 commercial pilot licenses (CPL) were issued to pilots from Indian flying training organisations (FTO) in the past five years and another 1,113 foreign CPLs were converted to Indian CPLs during this period.

In 2016, the number of CPLs issued through Indian FTOs was 376. This went up to 430 in 2019 before falling to 303 in 2020, the year, which was marred by lockdowns and other restrictions. As far as foreign pilots are concerned, there were 537 conversions from foreign CPLs to Indian CPLs in 2016, which rose to 744 by 2019. In 2020, this number came down to 522.

The question however remains as to what needs to be done to overcome these hurdles in the future.

In a major move, the committee has recommended that the ministry should envisage the setting up of a pilot training Institute adjacent to at least one airport in each state besides formulating futuristic plans for devising tailor-made technical courses for skill development, training and research, in consultation with the private sector. Indian Flying Training Organisations are however faced with several challenges like sub-optimal fleet size, high rents, ageing fleet, lack of an adequate number of trainers, and sub-optimal facilities.

Regular flying training activity at GFTS has been impacted by the large-scale construction around the Jakkur aerodrome, where several apartment complexes have been built beyond the 45-metre limit. In addition to the same, the ongoing metro work has shortened the runway.

However while the Bengaluru based GFTS is in the danger of being shut; the state can heave a sigh of relief as aspirants from the state can learn at the new Flying schools coming up at Kalaburgi and Belagavi. The Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) has announced setting up eight new academies across five airports — Belagavi and Kalaburagi in Karnataka, Jalgaon in Maharashtra, Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh, and Lilabari in Assam, in the hope of making India a hub for flight training. These flight training schools are being set up to prevent aspiring commercial pilots from having to receive training abroad and the aspirants hope that the grand plan will help overcome the acute shortage of pilots.

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