Flight Plan

Aviation looking up, but who’s gonna keep it flying?

V. Rishikumar/Ashwini Phadnis | Updated on: Feb 19, 2019

The domestic aviation sector is poised for big growth but faces a shortage of trained professionals, including pilots, cabin crew and engineers, say V Rishikumar and Ashwini Phadnis

Everyone talks of the laudable double-digit growth in the domestic aviation sector over the last 50 consecutive months. And rightfully so.

But there are some voices that also add a word of caution: There is a chance that this growth may be derailed due to lack of proper, trained manpower.

Some reports caution that further growth in aviation will not happen without the availability of qualified personnel across every discipline — including pilots, cabin crew, engineers, air traffic controllers, ground staff and handlers, administration and management. Each one of these roles requires education and training.

Various studies also show that the demand for trained manpower is going to grow as India adds more aircraft and connects more airports around the country. India is expected to add over 1,000 aircraft and the government is looking at flights connecting not only the smaller cities but also at opening waterdomes and promoting helicopter operations in a big way.

However, there is little clarity on the exact number of trained manpower required for the sector. The Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (CAPA) estimates that India will need about 17,000 pilots by fiscal 2028. This includes about 7,000 first officers and about 10,000 commanders. In effect, this means that the country will need at least 1,800 pilots annually.

According to the KPMG-FICCI report on Vision 2040, there is a shortage of skilled manpower in ground operations and security functions.

CAE forecasts that the industry, globally, will need 2,55,000 new airline pilots over the next 10 years, for a total of 440,000 active pilots by 2027. Asia-Pacific will see the strongest growth in pilot demand as the region’s fleet of in-service aircraft is projected to significantly increase in size.

An ad hoc approach

Sudheer Raghavan, CCO, Turbo Megha Airways Pvt Ltd, points out that there is a shortage of qualified type rated local pilots, particularly for turboprop aircraft like ATRs.

“Even those who fly ATRs see this stint as temporary as they aspire to switch airlines and hop to jets. This results in a double whammy for the smaller airlines as they have to compete with the jet operators for the limited pool of local pilots. Secondly, they are forced to recruit foreign pilots at higher costs and against very stringent DGCA rules.”

What makes the situation serious is that the aviation sector has certain unique characteristics as far as skilled human resources are concerned, including skilled manpower being available at the point of service delivery. Further, the manpower has to comply with processes and regulations and global and national standards. For all this, it requires skills that need to be upgraded regularly for most jobs.

What has led to this situation, which may become critical in the months to come?

A Mumbai-based expert connected with the aviation industry for over three decades says this situation is primarily because of the lack of a holistic approach that recognises the strategic growth and development of the aviation sector.

“It has been ad-hocism all the way. I am setting up an airline, who will be my chief pilot? I will poach from some airline. Poaching is a very expensive thing. Strangely, today, the poached are more successful than the poacher, so to speak. Without adequate planning and focus on creating an environment conducive to cost-effectiveness and commercial competitiveness, we are going to face this problem,” he says.

Some blame the government for not doing enough. According to an industry expert, “Everything that an airline does is in public interest. The government has to step in. If it is necessary, it should tie up with some of the most respected institutions globally. We do not have to reinvent the wheel.”

Industry watchers, however, feel the country does not have enough pilots as there are not enough training institutions. They add that India does not need more pilots but better quality pilots, which will only happen if we have good training.

Industry finding its own solutions

Given this scenario, there are some in the industry who are looking at their own solutions. For example, IndiGo recently announced that it had entered into a five-year agreement with Skyborne Airline Academy to train up to 100 pilots a year over the next five years as part of the IndiGo Cadet Pilot Programme. The 18-month programme will enable selected cadets to train for a US FAA and Indian DGCA Commercial Pilot’s Licence and Airbus A320 type rating, before advancing into employment and flying as a First Officer with India’s leading airline.

According to Dinesh Keskar, Senior Vice-President, Asia-Pacific and India Sales, Boeing, the company offers global fleet care. “You buy the aeroplane and at a fixed dollar per hour rate we will take care of the entire aeroplane operations. We will get the parts, we will take care of everything. We will not fly it. We will not give you cabin crew. We will take care of it,” he says, adding that if one is to look at the over 2,300 aircraft that Boeing predicts India will require over the next 20 years, “then a constant effort needs to be made to increase manpower both in terms of aircraft engineers on ground for different types of aircraft and, of course, the pilots.”

CAPA is hopeful that with airlines looking at setting up pilot training schools, the conversion of first officers to commanders will take care of almost 9,000 commanders from the estimated demand for 10,000 commanders.

Published on February 19, 2019
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