A huge shortage of pilots for flying commercial planes may have caused private airlines and the government to lower standards for recruitment, veteran pilots and industry watchers feared, a trend that is potentially dangerous.
Flying institutes without enough equipment and instructors, co-pilots who are younger than 20 years and the large number of foreign pilots, many of whom are unfamiliar with the local topography and climate, are symptoms of this skills shortage, they said.
“Pilot training is the backbone of the industry,” said Captain Yash Raj Tongia, a pilot who runs and teaches at an eponymous flying school in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh. “The Indian aviation sector needs at least 4,000 more pilots over the next five years, but most flying schools in are yet to upgrade their quality.” More than half his students are dropouts from other institutes, fed up of waiting for instructors to come on board.
The spotlight has come back on the threat posed by the shortage of skills in India’s aviation sector, with a budget airliner crashing in Phuket, Thailand, on Sunday and killing at least 88 people, and an aircraft carrying Congress President Sonia Gandhi had a near-miss with an international airline.
Critics say that the government has allowed private airlines to proliferate without thinking about generating enough manpower to support the expansion. Almost half the 320 pilots who got licences last year were trained abroad. Domestic airlines together have 350 aircraft, flown by 4,500 pilots — including 1,100 foreigners.
Take the training institutes. Out of the 41 approved flying schools in India, 16 have shut down or are on the verge of closure. The remaining ones have only 32 instructors in all.
The country’s rules also allow a person to become a co-pilot, who stands in for the pilot, after just six months of obtaining his or her commercial pilots’ licence. This means that many private airlines have co-pilots who are younger than 20 years of age. In the U.S. one becomes a co-pilot in a commercial airline only seven years after getting a licence.
“We recently increased our age limit for co-pilots to 21 years,” said Captain J S Dhillon, head of operations SpiceJet, and declined to comment about other airlines, whose chief executives were not available for comment. To some extent, the rules themselves are a problem, critics said.
“The Indian authorities don’t allow two 60-year-olds inside the cockpit, but they are fine with one 19-year-old and one 60-year-old!” exclaimed a veteran pilot, who did not want to be identified. “But in an emergency, the 19-year-old might find it difficult to respond due to a lack of experience.”
Kanu Gohain, the director general of civil aviation, defended the rules. “Once the candidate has fulfilled all the criteria including fight tests, there is no harm if he or she is 19 years old,” he said. “We issue licences after a well-laid-down procedure, and in fact, the younger lot are more sharp and receptive.”