New Delhi: She was fascinated by aviation when in school and after graduating with a BSc in physics, enrolled in an aircraft maintenance engineering (AME) college in Pune, Maharashtra. After finishing the three-year course that cost Rs 3 lakh, certifying a flight for takeoff may still be years away, if not an impossible dream, for 25-year-old Uttara.
“I will complete my course in two months, then I will be applying (for a job) in the airlines or flying clubs,” says Uttara, who wants to be identified only by her first name. “The problem with the industry is (that) there is no intake of freshers. There are a few people with basic licences, but they have no jobs.”
Some of her seniors are working as technicians for salaries as low as Rs 3,000 a month, says Uttara, who is now on an on-the-job training stint at a flying club in Indore. She estimates that of every 10 candidates who apply for an aircraft maintenance engineer’s job, only four may find one, and two of them because of connections in the industry.
The problem is the proliferation in recent years of AME institutes that have little to offer students by way of training, but pander to their dreams of joining a glamorous industry with the potential to earn a starting salary as high as Rs 50,000 a month. A low entry barrier means students can join an institute as soon as they finish high school and at the end of the three-year course, they are still treated as no more than high school graduates. That’s because the certificates awarded by most institutes are not recognized as the equivalent of a university degree.
The airline industry’s rapid growth in recent years has prompted the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), the industry regulator, to grant dozens of licences to AME institutes. Their number increased to 77 in 2010 from 32 in 2004. The number of institutes in the northern region alone rose to 26 from nine in the period.
The result: A growing number of engineers are joining the ranks of the unemployed in the aviation industry, where the jobless include 5,000 commercial pilot licence holders who have little experience.
The aviation sector employs about 122,000 people. According to consulting firm Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (Capa), the industry will require 360,000 people by 2020. Demand for pilots, engineers and cabin crew will increase to just over 90,000 from 32,000 now.
A maintenance engineer’s job is a critical one, ensuring the airworthiness and safety of a plane. AME graduates need to clear an examination conducted by DGCA to qualify as engineers. Applicants need to be at least 21 years old, having passed the 10+2 school examination with physics and mathematics, or any other equivalent qualification acceptable to DGCA. They also need a minimum four years of experience in AME.
‘On the roads’
DGCA has so far issued as many as 15,240 AME licences—7,506 of them in just the six years between 2004 and 2010.
The number of maintenance engineers who are jobless can be gauged from the fact that there are just 650 of them employed with the country’s largest airline by passengers carried, Jet Airways (India) Ltd. Jet has a fleet of 117 aircraft and about 5.5 engineers per plane. Indian carriers have a combined fleet of 425 aircraft plus 375 with non-scheduled charter operators.
Not everyone clears the DGCA exams, which are considered very tough by the likes of Uttara. But 6,000 people still graduate from these AME schools every year.
“Most of them are on the roads. They keep calling me for jobs. I can get some of them on-job training. But supply is more, demand is less,” says a senior Air India Ltd aircraft engineer who interviews candidates and spoke on condition of anonymity.
An AME school should ideally have state-of-the-art laboratories with aircraft components, testing facilities in aeronautics and airframes to teach students. But these are expensive to instal and maintain, so students are given theory lessons and trained on unserviceable components; this provides them with little understanding of how an aircraft actually works.
Many institutes have obsolete aircraft. Their premises are often used to teach other non-aviation courses.
Located in a village near Ranholla on the outskirts of Delhi, the Indian Institute of Aeronautics, for example, has a Douglas DC-3 Dakota parked on its premises, with rocks wedged against the front and rear wheels for stability. None of India’s airlines use Dakotas any more; the planes are hard to find or repair.
Institutes also misrepresent facts on their websites and in advertisements, painting a rosy picture of employment opportunities. “The schools are misleading parents,” says the Air India engineer cited above, referring to claims of securing students fancy jobs at high salaries.
It’s not that DGCA is unaware of the existence of such institutions, an aviation ministry document reviewed by Mint shows.
Quality above quantity
The problem was discussed at a January meeting of top officials that included Jet Airways chief executive officer (CEO) Nikos Kardassis, IndiGo president Aditya Ghosh, Kingfisher Airlines Ltd vice-president Hitesh Patel, SpiceJet Ltd CEO Neil Mills, aviation secretary Nasim Zaidi and DGCA chief E.K. Bharat Bhushan, besides then aviation minister Praful Patel.
“The standards are mainly on paper,” Patel said, according to the minutes of the meeting reviewed by Mint. He said several institutes were advertising that their courses were recognized by DGCA even before had got such clearances.
“(He) expressed his concern over the substandard quality of flying training schools and the AME schools, and desired that DGCA should come down heavily on them,” according to the minutes. “He insisted upon quality rather than the quantity of these schools. He desired that DGCA should have a mechanism of checking such substandard activities adopted in the training schools and curb them immediately.”
The meeting even recommended a way of communicating to would-be pilots and engineers an accurate employment scenario, given the employment prospects for poorly qualified candidates.
In 2009, the regulator audited most of these schools to check their credentials. Afterwards, 33 institutes had licences revoked or partially suspended as they did not correct deficiencies noted during audit inspections, according to a DGCA response to a Right to Information application from Mint. Schools are typically given a few months to address deficiencies found in an audit.
DGCA declined to specify the reasons for revoking the licences.
Data collected by Mint shows that of the 33 AME schools that were suspended, 22 were opened after 2004, raising questions on how some of these were granted licences in the first place.
“It shows that there is wholesale fraud and there is a definite danger that many AMEs have got the licences by fraud,” said Mohan Ranganathan, a Chennai-based air safety expert and member of the government-appointed Civil Aviation Safety Advisory Council.
The head of one of these 33 institutes alleged corruption in awarding licences and renewing them. “First they give a licence, then when it comes for renewal they ask for money. We do not have the resources to pay, so our students were not given roll numbers to appear in the exam and the institute licence was not renewed,” this person said.
He asked not to be named because he said he hoped to one day be able to pay a bribe and get his institute reopened.
“I never asked for money from anyone,” said R.P. Sahi, former joint director general, DGCA, who retired late last year as head of the airworthiness directorate that oversees AME schools.
Sahi agreed that too many AME schools had been granted licences, blaming regional DGCA officials for this.
He said that in 2009, a board was created by the then DGCA chief Zaidi, now aviation secretary, to re-examine all the schools. Following this the norms were made more stringent, he said.
Sahi, whose son works as a pilot for Jet Airways, is currently a consultant to the aviation ministry and DGCA for which he is paid by state-owned Pawan Hans Helicopters Ltd. He denied that there was any conflict of interest in this, though Pawan Hans is regulated by DGCA and both come under the aviation ministry.
“The matters on which I work, there is no conflict on it,” he said.
DGCA banned its officials from dealing with any airline matters in which their relatives are involved, following accusations of nepotism in May this year, Mint reported on 6 May.
Bhushan, who heads the regulator, said he understands many licences were irregularly awarded at the cost of students. More schools “will be shut down” after DGCA completes another audit in the next few weeks, he added.
“There are 6,000 of these kids coming out every year. Three hundred get jobs if they are lucky,” he said. “Students are being fooled and made to mop aircraft in the end.”
Even expert groups have raised questions about the standards of India’s AME schools.
“It is estimated that 80% of academies would fail to meet Easa (European Aviation Safety Agency) 147 standards,” Capa said in a recent report.
Easa is the European Union’s authority on aviation standards and safety. Easa 147 governs the establishment of aircraft mechanics’ training schools.
Jayaram Shetty, a former senior vice-president for human resources at Jet Airways, who now teaches at the Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies in Mumbai, likens the training to instant coffee.
“The critical jobs in airline are in-flight, customer services and engineering,” he said. “Engineering is the most critical one. We have to train them from within even if they have a mechanical engineering degree. We have to really train them again, which unfortunately is not taking place to that extent.”
The rot stemming from the deficient training school network may already have seeped into the system. In a 2009 surveillance of airlines and charter operations, DGCA found that some organizations “did not have approved maintenance programme documents for the aircraft they were using”.
Aircraft components were found “swapped without recording their removal and re-installation perhaps to avoid detection of MEL (minimum equipment list) exceedance”. MEL ascertains whether an aircraft can be allowed to fly or not.
The audit also showed that “components certified for military aircraft were found used on civil aircraft without following established procedures” and documents “were found fabricated to establish that these components were produced as civil aircraft components”. Not just that, “unapproved technicians were found supervising fuelling”.
Many AME students don’t qualify for any other job and are lucky if they get hired by airlines as lowly paid technicians.
“The process of conversion from technician to aircraft maintenance engineer is stringent and largely controlled by official regulations,” said Jet Airways in an email. “Potential aircraft maintenance engineers in India join as non-licensed mechanics or technicians. The basic qualification required and as mandated by the regulator is a diploma in aircraft maintenance engineering or any equivalent programme, approved by Indian DGCA.”
On successful completion of the aircraft type course, followed by a verbal test conducted by DGCA, the technician is authorized to certify some part, component or phase of the aircraft. At this point, the technician becomes a licensed engineer.
DGCA’s Bhushan said most airlines prefer hiring retired aircraft maintenance engineers over youngsters because of their experience.
Unlike pilots, who retire at the age of 65 years, there is no age bar for aircraft maintenance engineers.
On 14 May, four people were killed when a Border Security Force Chetak helicopter, maintained and operated by Pawan Hans, crashed in Rajasthan.
A DGCA official, who declined to be named, said the engineer on board was 71 years old. “There should be an age limit,” the official said. “How does one certify a flight at that age when your visibility gives away and you don’t have the torque to fix machines?”
This is the second of a four-part series on airline safety that looks at issues related to hiring and training that compromise safety. This is Mint’s third series on air safety. In the first series, we explained how India’s aviation boom had been accompanied by a corresponding increase in the risk of mishaps. In the second, we looked at operational, infrastructural, and regulatory issues that compromised air safety.
Next: India’s flying schools under scanner for fraudulent activities.