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Crash landing

The downturn in the aviation sector and the large number of expats hired by Indian airlines have left thousands of pilots without jobs – and without a future, report Samiran Saha, Lalatendu Mishra and Sanjeev K Ahuja.

business Updated: Oct 14, 2009 23:06 IST
Hindustan Times

Nikhil Sherawat holds a commercial pilot’s license from a leading flying school in the Philippines, but works as a call centre executive in Gurgaon for a salary of Rs 7,500 per month.


What do the unemployed pilots want?
They want domestic airlines to sack all expatriate pilots and employ them instead. They also want the government to bring down the retirement age for pilots from 65 to 60 as this will open up more jobs for unemployed pilots.

Are they qualified to fly?
Merely holding a Commercial Pilots License (CPL) does not qualify an individual to fly. CPL holders have to go through a series of ground, simulator and actual flight training – totaling 1,000 hours – to qualify as a co-pilot. But airlines also employ such pilots to perform several highly technical jobs on the ground.

Who can become a commander?
A pilot qualifies to become a commander only after clocking 3,000 flying hours. On average, a pilot clocks 500-600 flying hours a year. So, one can become a commander in 5-7 years.

Do other countries allow expat pilots to fly on domestic routes?
Foreign pilots cannot fly on domestic routes in the US, the UK and EU.

Reason: the Indian aviation sector is in the doldrums. So, nobody in the industry is uttering the R (recruitment)-word any more.

That means the 20-year-old’s dream of landing a high-paying job with an airline in India is all but dead. And his father, a head constable with the Delhi Police, who sold his plot of land in Dwarka to finance his son’s ambitions, is wondering what went wrong.

Sherawat is not alone.

Thousands of young pilots are without jobs – and without much hope of landing one in the near future.

The exact number of such pilots is not clear. The Indian Commercial Pilots Association (ICPA), which represents pilots of the erstwhile Indian Airlines, estimates that 1,800-2,000 pilots are unemployed in India; the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, an independent consultant, says the number could be higher – at 3,000; and the Unemployed Pilots Welfare Association (UPWA) says it is 4,000.

The crisis has its roots in the aviation boom in the country between 2005 and 2007. As Air Deccan (now Kingfisher Red) and other me-too low cost carriers lured new travelers with ultra-low fares, the middle class enthusiastically swapped their train tickets for boarding passes. And airlines rapidly expanded their fleets to cash in on the boom.

The hitch: India didn’t have enough pilots to fly these additional planes. In mid-2005, there was a shortage of about 1,000 pilots. Airlines, therefore, hired pilots from the US, Russia and east European countries, which were plagued with overcapacity and, thus, had several out of job pilots.

But this was always going to be a temporary solution. The long-term solution: train and groom Indian pilots to fill these positions.

That was when ambitious young men and women from across the country jumped into the bandwagon. Their logic was simple: Even rookie pilots earned Rs 1-1.5 lakh per month; and commanders got four-to-five times as much.

They begged, borrowed, pawned and sold properties to finance their studies. The most popular destinations: the Philippines, the US and Canada.

Then, the boom went bust in early 2008, catching, among others, these freshly minted pilots in the no-man’s land between a fairy tale future and an uncertain present.

Some, like Hemant Goyal, 21, had taken a loan of Rs 18 lakh from private moneylenders. A one-year CPL course costs Rs 18-20 lakh (Rs 1.8-2 million) in the Philippines and twice as much in the US and Canada.

Now, his father is facing threats from local goons in Gurgaon, his hometown, to pay off the debt. He earns only Rs 8,500 per month as a call centre executive in this booming Delhi suburb.

“There are about 1,000 expatriate pilots working for various domestic airlines, even as these boys and girls are sitting around unemployed,” said Captain Ashok Arya, president of UPWA. “Is that fair?”

He will meet officials of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), the aviation regulator, on Thursday to seek its intervention in the matter. “We will decide our future course of action after that,” he added.

The DGCA has told airlines that they will have to replace all expatriate pilots with Indians by next year, but they are dealing with the issue cautiously.

“We are training pilots to ensure that we have adequate manpower,” said an Air India spokesperson. “We have submitted an extensive plan on phasing out foreign pilots to the DGCA,” added the Kingfisher spokesperson.

Off the record, however, airlines said they would take a collective call on the DGCA directive. The two largest airlines in the country – Jet Airways and Air India – have recently faced trouble from their pilots’ unions and so, may be loathe to let go of these expats, who aren’t part of any union.

But the pilots are adamant. “Indians, not expats, must get priority in airline jobs” said Captain R.S. Otaal, general secretary of ICPA.

So where does that leave these unemployed pilots?

Despite the current slowdown, the long-term growth projections for the Indian aviation sector are still very rosy. Over the next 10 years, India, which currently has 3,000 pilots, will need 7,000 more pilots to keep its projected fleet of about 800 planes in the air.

So, despite their current predicament, Lady Luck may yet smile at these young flyers.