Airlines plunge, but pilot demand soars

  • Soubhik Mitra, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Jan 12, 2015 17:38 IST

When Kingfisher Airlines took off for the last time in October 2012, the dreams of hundreds of its workers came crashing down. Senior pilots, aircraft engineers and cabin crew personnel were suddenly hit by the worst turbulence of their careers. Families living in plush Mumbai neighbourhoods moved to the outskirts of the city, children were forced to take a break from studies and some workers settled for humble jobs at malls or city hotels.

Thirty months on, cash-strapped SpiceJet started cancelling around 100 daily flights. There were fears of a similar human crisis, but these have been unfounded, it seems.

With at least four new airlines entering domestic skies, and existing players spreading their wings, the unrest in SpiceJet has not hit jobs, unlike the 2012 disaster, industry experts said.

“The last time the demand for pilots exceeded the availability was when Kingfisher was launched. Almost a decade later, the same demand-supply equation is seen in the industry now,” said Ashok Davit, managing director, Proctor Aviation, a city-based firm specialising in pilot recruitment.

Davit said with airlines slotted to add 470-odd new aircraft, the country would need 5,000 more pilots. Every new aircraft added demands 12 pilots, according to industry estimates.

AirAsia India, Air Pegasus, Air Costa and the recently launched Air Vistara have all been on a hiring spree. Among existing players, Indigo Airlines, which is scheduled to add a new aircraft every month, is believed to have hired 300 pilots over the past six months, sources said. Jet Airways has been hiring Boeing commanders from SpiceJet.

“Almost all the Airbus A320 pilots who were jobless for months after Kingfisher was grounded are back flying. Only a few who operated the airline’s jumbo aircraft (Airbus A330, on the Mumbai-London route) had to go away from home in search of jobs , as domestic carriers barely use that kind of aircraft,” said a senior Boeing commander, requesting anonymity.

Even those pilots trained to fly turboprops such ATRs – one of the oldest aircraft fleets in the world – are flying with regional carriers in the south, sources said. This explains how half a dozen Boeing B737 commanders with SpiceJet landed a job with a full-service carrier using the same aircraft fleet.

“My only compromise was joining at the bottom of the hierarchy,” said one of them, requesting anonymity. The pilot added he got a decent raise and the transition was “unbelievable” after the tragic stories that came out of the previous catastrophe faced by the fraternity.

Industry experts pointed out that the constant labour unrest in airlines is ‘peculiar’ to India. “A British Airways captain wants to retire from the airline. That kind of loyalty is missing in India, where there seldom is a healthy relationship between employees and the management,” said Jitendra Bhargava, former executive director of Air India and author of the book, Descent of Air India. He added domestic airlines prefer hiring readymade, trained pilots instead of investing in in-house pilots’ training.

“Pilots, on the other hand, have this ingrained arrogance that they are indispensable. They threaten stirs for their personal gains,” Bhargava said.

Foreign carriers, particularly in the Gulf, have also been recruiting pilots generously. “Pilots from defunct airlines such as Modiluft had joined Gulf carriers, but the numbers then were roughly one-tenth of what we see now,” said a management-rank pilot with a recently launched airline. From 15-odd commanders in a year in the mid-90s, now, close to 100 join carriers every year, the pilot added.

“Earlier, since the traffic within the country was miniscule, only a handful of pilots had the flying experience required by foreign airlines. Now, hundreds of pilots easily clock close to 1,000 hours in a year and achieve the 5,000-odd hours experience that foreign airlines require,” said another retired Boeing captain.

Talent drain from India will likely continue, going by the projected expansion plans of as smaller aviation markets such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

“When Regent Airways – an emerging carrier from Bangladesh – began, a bulk of its top management was former Air India and SpiceJet staffers,” said a senior training captain with a no-frill airline requesting anonymity.

The pilot added after the US, these airlines source their talent from India.

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