The crash of the Air India Express plane piloted by a Serbian national on Saturday has put the focus back on whether foreign pilots with various Indian air carriers are able to operate in a country with a diverse topography.
There are around 560 expat pilots currently employed with various airlines in India and they account for 10 per cent of the total strength of 5,500 civilian pilots.
Air India Express, the low-cost arm of the national carrier, has 125 expat pilots and they reportedly face a number of problems while operating a flight in the country when they are in the cockpit. In all, Air India has 250 expat pilots.
"Expat pilots should be removed because they are not familiar with the diverse topography in India," a retired Indian Airlines pilot, who did not wish to be identified, said.
The common problems that expat pilots face are related to communication and lack of knowledge of topography of Indian terrain, a senior pilot association official said.
According to Air Traffic Control (ATC) sources, air traffic controllers find it hard to communicate with expat pilots.
"Many a times, foreign pilots are unable to follow the instructions because of the difference in our accent. Also we find it hard to understand what an expat pilot is saying in his hard accent," an ATC source said.
The Indian Commercial Pilots Association of erstwhile Indian Airlines has frequently demanded that expat pilots must return to their countries because there is no shortage of pilots in India.
"We have been asking the DGCA (Directorate General of Civil Aviation) for their removal and induction of Indian pilots. But every time, the deadline for their removal is extended due to some pressure of the airline companies," an ICA official said.
The government recently extended the time-frame for phasing out foreign pilots employed by Indian carriers by one year upto July 31, 2011.
The move came in the wake of demands by Air India and other airlines that the time be extended beyond July 31, 2010.
The existing policy for validation of foreign pilots licences is valid up to July 31, 2010. DGCA requested airline operators to submit their plan for phasing out expatriate pilots along with net requirement of these pilots beyond that date, according to Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel.
Patel said that since 2008, the number of foreign pilots has come down considerably and gradually Indian pilots, who have mostly been co-pilots, will be elevated to the status of commanding pilots.
Overseas pilots were allowed to fly Indian aircrafts because from 2004-05 there was stagnation in the aviation sector.
Foreign pilots continued to be inducted after the sector picked up. The DGCA has started a programme for phased reduction of expat pilots.
According to Patel, Indian pilots are capable of flying under any condition and their training and qualification can be compared to the best in the world.