Sunday, July 14, 2024

Training Not Poaching

Jitender Bhargava

Former Executive Director, Air India & Author

Airlines should augment strength of pilots required through training in-house; not poaching.

One of the primary factors preventing attainment of pre-Covid levels of flight operations and passenger carriage globally has been the shortage of pilots. Operation of fewer flights by airlines on several international routes, due non-availability of adequate pilots, has been one of the primary contributory factors for high air fares being witnessed across the world. 

Even though it has been almost two years since the pandemic-induced restrictions were withdrawn and normalcy restored by governments, airlines in several countries are struggling to find adequate number of pilots to replace pilots, who had either superannuated or quit flying during the pandemic years. Since it concerns safety the rigorous and prolonged training curriculum required by regulatory agencies cannot be shortened to hasten the pace of pilot induction.

India has fortunately witnessed a lower impact of pilot’s scarcity for multiple reasons even as the industry is in growth mode. Indian domestic airlines, which are collectively carrying more passengers now than in the pre-COVID era, have been able to achieve this by operating fewer flights – around 2800 flights per day as against 3100 flights per day in the pre-COVID months by recording higher load factors.

Achieving 90 per cent plus occupancy in the passenger-chasing-seat market environment on a sustained basis has enabled airlines to operate fewer flights and mitigate the adverse impact of shortage of skilled pilots. Air travellers, of course, have been forced to shell out higher air fares for their travel in such an environment. Unlike domestic traffic, international arrivals, and departures to and from India with multiple international airlines in the fray continue to be below pre-COVID level even now.

Train more pilots in-house

Aiding the Indian aviation industry to temporarily overcome shortage have been unforeseen factors, like the collapse of Go First airline in May 2023. Pilots of Go First quickly jettisoned the airline and joined Air India and Indigo which desperately needed trained pilots to expand their operations through induction of new aircraft. It was felt till recently that even as global airlines were facing the brunt of pilots’ shortage, India had been spared. 

The reality, however, dawned on the industry a couple of months ago when forty-three pilots quit Akasa airline in July-August in quick succession to join other airlines without serving the mandatory notice period. The fact that these pilots had been lured with job offers by other airlines was ample indication of enough trained pilots not being available. Akasa CEO, Vinay Dube, protested vehemently and accused DGCA of inaction. An airline accusing DGCA was unprecedented because thus far airlines have preferred to maintain a stoic silence rather than confront DGCA or accuse it of inaction, whatever may have been the issue. 

The angst and frustration of Mr Dube appeared fully understandable as after consistently enhancing flight operations and garnering higher market share month after month since its inception a year earlier, the airline was compelled to curtail flight operations, face wrath of passengers inconvenienced due last-minute cancellation of flights. For a professionally managed airline, expanding operations in a calibrated manner, growing market share gradually the sudden resignation of forty-three pilots was viewed as an unpardonable sin. 

Was DGCA guilty of inaction? 

It is true that it was not the first time that pilots serving Indian carriers were quitting one airline to join another. What made it distinct from other instances was that in earlier cases the resignations were sparked from an airline when it was on the verge of either collapsing or facing an uncertain future, like in the case of Go First airline earlier this year. Akasa airline had faced no such threat. It was, in fact, on an expansion spree. 

The tendency of pilots gravitating towards a more stable and formidable airline in pursuit of career progression can also not be faulted. What was of grave concern in this instance was not just the number of pilots – 43, quitting within a short span of time, but their not giving the mandatory notice for the airline to make alternate arrangements for preventing disruption in its flight schedule. 

DGCA had specified a notice period of 6 and 12 months for co-pilots and Commanders respectively a decade ago when several Air India pilots were quitting to join Indigo because government-owned Air India was paying only 75% of the emoluments – with balance payment payable at a later uncertain date. Air India’s justifiable plea at that time was that if too many pilots quit suddenly without serving the notice period and in large numbers it had the potential to disrupt normal flight schedule inconveniencing passengers, harming airline’s reputation. Adequate notice period was thus considered imperative by DGCA.

As this order was under challenge in the Court, DGCA took the plea in the case of Akasa airline that resignation of pilots was a matter between the employer and the employee and that it had no role to play. 

Discipline is of paramount importance.

This was clearly an unacceptable stand. When flight operations are forced to be reduced due unavailability of pilots resulting in fewer seats being available and consequently rise in fares it does become a matter of concern both for the Ministry of Civil Aviation and the DGCA. Can the regulatory body shirk its responsibility? Certainly not, if the overall interests of all stakeholders must be borne in mind the instance of pilots quitting without serving the notice period needs to be addressed post haste.

While it is heartening to see Akasa bounce back quickly as pilots undergoing training could be inducted to restore normalcy in operations; new policies like changes at the industry level on conditions that must apply when a pilot resigns from one airline to join another, better understanding amongst the airlines on this issue in particular, needs to be evolved because if one airline is suffering the consequences of migration of pilots from one airline to another today others could face the same dilemma  sometime later as pilots can be lured by dangling the carrot – more money and promises of faster career progression by cash-rich airlines – to meet the enhanced requirement.

Way forward

Can the country afford to continue with the current practices? When we are witness to such an unpleasant scenario with only seven hundred odd aircraft operational in Indian skies, we can visualise the scenario when there are double the number of aircraft in operation in the next few years? The urgency to find an amicable solution therefore assumes paramount importance particularly because Indian carriers have ambitious growth plans. 

While Indigo and Air India have already placed orders for almost a thousand aircraft between them, Akasa has made it known that it will place a three-digit order by the end of the year. With phased induction of several aircraft on the anvil – Air India alone inducting one new aircraft every six days, a new policy needs to be formulated which while laying emphasis on in-house training discourages the adoption of easier route of poaching pilots from other airlines. Air India, which has ordered 470 aircraft, due for induction over a period of 7 years beginning next month, has made it known that it already has 350 pilots under trading. The sordid example of Akasa should be treated as an aberration and not a regular practice adopted by other airlines.

It will be imperative for DGCA to take the lead and act now by taking a 360-degree perspective. One solution can be to ask airlines to keep the regulatory agency informed of number of new aircraft proposed to be inducted in the coming months, status of training and plans for augmenting strength of pilots, etc. to meet increased requirement. 

With Indian aviation destined to grow at an impressive pace to match the rapid strides being taken by other sectors of the Indian economy let there be no obstacle that can derail ambitious growth plans. Time to take affirmative action by all concerned is now! 

Jitender Bhargava, former executive director, Air India & author of ‘The Descent of Air India.

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