A plane truth: We’ve no commanders!

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The year-gone by has not been particularly good for the Indian skies with debt trap grounding high-flying Kingfisher Airlines, the striking Air India pilots and fake license scam.

The civil aviation sector, however, is facing a bigger crisis in the form of an acute shortage of commanders. If the issue is not solved, the expansion plans of major carriers can go haywire, besides, hitting existing flight operations.

Air India, interestingly, was forced to cancel many of its flights during the last two months, particularly the Kochi-based Air India Express hitting Non-Resident Keralites (NRKs) the hardest.

And the situation can reach an explosive stage if the plans of Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) to phase out over 400 foreign pilots, a majority of whom are working as commanders, take wings.

“We’ve directed all airlines to make sure they’ve sufficient Indian pilots as commanders by December 2013. But, it’s difficult to fill the gap since most commanders are expat pilots”, DGCA E.K. Bharat Bhushan told Deccan Chronicle.

He admits the situation would get still worse once the FDI proposal gets implemented. “We’re keeping our options open. But, that does not mean we don’t have to set a deadline,” Bhushan asserted.

The DGCA decision to phase out expat pilots is aimed at increasing the job opportunities of Indian nationals. The move is also expected to simplify the vital communication process during aircraft navigation.

The airlines, of course, can cut down their salary burden since most expat pilots are being paid hefty salaries compared to their Indian counterparts. But, it’s easier said than done.

For, the country has about 1,300 local pilots who’re mostly co-pilots. This makes the process of shunting out 415 odd foreign pilots serving as commanders a difficult task.

Air India (AI) sources do admit that the national carrier is confronted with a commander crunch. As of now, AI doesn’t have even a single foreign pilot on its rolls as first officer.

“Our pilots will make it to commander-level in another two years. But, we don’t know how many will fit into that role since the two-year period is too short time”, sources said.

Meanwhile, AI, avoiding senior-most and less-experienced hands, is now filling mid-level slots. “We’re taking people to the posts of instructor/examiner, check pilot, captain, trainee captain and co-pilot”, sources maintained.

It’s learnt the current recruitment strategy would be an ongoing process aimed at creating adequate manpower. So, what led to the gap between senior-most pilots and the junior ones?

Dr Joe Jacob, a former AI pilot and now a veterinary surgeon, attributes it to lack of recruitments, He says AI didn’t recruit anyone for over a decade between 1987 and 1997.

“Then, there was only Air India and Indian Airlines and getting the job of a pilot was next to impossible. So, not many were willing to pay up huge sums to become pilots”, Jacob pointed out.

Joe, however, doesn’t believe Indian Aviation can do well without the services of expat pilots. He explains only very few pilots who’ve completed 5000-hours of flying were available within the domestic job market.

“So, DGCA move to employ only domestic pilots is going to a tough call, that too, when Indian civil aviation is growing at a fast rate. Ideally speaking, license conversion examination should be made mandatory for all expats instead of phasing them out, he said.

Currently those who serve for shorter period, say one year, are exempted from appearing the test which Joe finds undesirable.

Meanwhile, Indian aviation sector is going through an exciting phase. Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation study reveals Indian market is growing at an astounding 18.4 per cent a year. Being the fastest growing domestic market in the world, India witnessed 24 per cent growth in passenger traffic in 2010.
Currently, there are seven private airlines and a total of 433 aircraft flying in and out of the country.

At this juncture, the commander-crunch if left unaddressed could ground the otherwise high-flying Indian aviation sector.

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