When Akash Mehra, 26, steps out of his South Delhi home to take the office cab to the airport, heads turn. “It’s the uniform… which attracts so much attention,” says Mehra, a co-pilot with SpiceJet, with a broad smile.
“There have been times when kids in the society have requested for photographs (with me)… It feels good especially after what I and my friends went through for the last eight years or so.”
Following an economic slowdown in the West in 2008, and its repercussions on the domestic economy, the aviation industry went into a tailspin. Kingfisher’s grounding in 2012, and the decision by domestic carriers to freeze hiring due to fund crunch complicated problems further.
The result: A number of aspiring pilots like Mehra had to take up small odd jobs to sustain their families and pay off the huge loans taken to fund their expensive pilot training courses.
Son of a retired government official, Mehra himself spent around Rs 25 lakh to get a commercial pilot licence (CPL) from the US in 2009.
“My father took a Rs 30-lakh loan to fund my training, but by the time I was ready, the bad times had begun,” recalls Mehra.
“I tried everywhere but nothing worked. Finally my parents told me to complete my education… I joined the flight dispatch department of SpiceJet in the hope that someday I will get my dream job.”
And finally, it was in June last year that Mehra was selected as a co-pilot with the airline.
But not everyone got lucky.
Vikas Sharma, 27, had to shift to Indonesia two years ago after he failed to get a flying job in India. He was promised a salary of $4,000 as a first officer, but received only $2,000 in hand as the broker who got him the job pocketed the rest.
Gaganjeet Sahni from Punjab got his CPL in 2009, but with no jobs in the market, he was forced to join a startup in Bangalore. “My father had put in all his savings to help me become a pilot... But Kingfisher was gone and no one else was recruiting. Not even a single person in my batch managed to get a job,” says Sahni.
He joined SpiceJet as co-pilot last year.
The numbers speak for themselves — There are currently around 10,000 unemployed CPL holders in the country.
Happy days are here again
The situation has, however, changed in the last two years with the entry of new players, including Vistara and AirAsia India, and expansion by existing ones like IndiGo. Airlines are hiring and have placed huge aircraft orders. India has emerged as one of the fastest-growing aviation markets in the world.
“Almost all airlines are hiring. The aviation industry is witnessing a boom similar to the one we saw in 2005-06 when budget airlines, including IndiGo, SpiceJet and GoAir, launched operations,” said a senior executive with a low-cost carrier.
“AI is hiring 534 Airbus pilots in addition to trainee pilots it has hired. IndiGo and SpiceJet are hiring big time. Things are changing,” an industry expert said.
Around 6,000 pilots are currently employed with different domestic airlines.
US plane-maker Boeing has projected a demand for 1,740 new airplanes, valued at $240 billion, over the next 20 years in India. Domestic carriers have placed orders for close to 750 aircraft.
The government’s decision to amend the 5/20 rule (five years of flying experience and a fleet size of 20 aircraft) to start international operations to 0/20 (No previous flying experience and a fleet size of 20 aircraft) has provided a further boost to the sector. The regional connectivity scheme, which provides for a fare cap of Rs 1,770-4,070 to encourage air travel and support airlines that operate between metros and unused airports through a viability gap fund, is also aiding growth.
It’s the uniform, the glamour, and the salary and perks of being a pilot that draws youngsters to the profession. While a Captain earns around Rs 6 lakh a month, co-pilots get Rs 2-3 lakh. However, becoming a commercial airlines pilot is a costly proposition. Pilot training academies charge anywhere between Rs 20 to Rs 25 lakh for a one-and-a-half-year course. Type-training to fly a particular type of aeroplane costs another Rs 25-30 lakh.
(Names have been changed on request)