The proliferation of substandard flying schools, aircraft maintenance engineering schools and cabin crew teaching institutes hasn’t helped make Indian skies any safer. Consulting firm Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (Capa), which in a study has predicted that the airline industry is headed for a “skill crisis”, estimates that India will need 90,000 pilots, engineers and cabin crew this decade.
“The industry failed to plan for people—development of skills and training was largely ignored,” said Capa South Asia chief executive officer (CEO) Kapil Kaul. “A hiatus in growth between 2008 and 2010 eased the pressure and has created a false sense of a problem solved. There has been no fundamental change in the supply and quality of skills. Growth could once again reveal the failure to plan for people.”
“It is definitely an area which needs a lot of attention,” said Suresh Nair, India head of low-cost airline AirAsia Berhad. “One major problem has been availability of personnel in all aspects of aviation business. Unlike in the hotel business, where from the 1970s or so we had good hotel management programmes where you can get trained personnel at any level—chef, front office—in every aspect, unfortunately, in the airline business there has never been any such thing. All airlines have taken up fresh graduates, trained them for two weeks and put them on the job.”
The scrutiny by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) of pilot licences issued to Indians in the last few years has shown that several students had, in the hope of becoming pilots, obtained fraudulent mark sheets. Some DGCA officials were found to have assisted in this. Six commanders and three DGCA officers have been arrested.
The aviation regulator has its headquarters and examination office at different locations in New Delhi. The fraudulent mark sheets were found to have been changed with the help of intermediaries when the applicants came to pick up their licences at DGCA headquarters.
Though the mark sheets were available in their original form on the DGCA website, neither airline executives nor officials at DGCA headquarters did a proper verification and, in some cases, aided the students.
DGCA has its own problems—understaffing, for one. The aviation regulator has 130 employees, against 12,232 at the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for regulatory functions. While the total number of employees at FAA is 47,456, the rest of the workforce is deployed in air traffic control—a function handled in India by the Airports Authority of India.
FAA has 4,384 flight inspectors for 18,651 aircraft with its scheduled airlines and charters, or about one person for every four aircraft. DGCA has 32 inspectors for about 800 aircraft with scheduled and non-scheduled operators, or about one person for 25 aircraft. DGCA appointed most of these inspectors in 2009 from domestic airlines on contract. The contracted inspectors go on flight inspections of other carriers, which safety expert Mohan Ranganathan says is a clear case of conflict of interest.
DGCA is now tightening licensing procedures, while domestic airlines are putting in place rules to deter frauds.
A “clean-up is on”, said DGCA chief E.K. Bharat Bhushan.
The industry is also trying to get its act together. A Jet Airways spokesman said in an email: “As a standard practice, for every application submitted by a pilot for issue of ALTP (airline transport pilots licence), the respective marksheets will be verified and cross-checked with the corresponding copy on the DGCA website.”
Jet Airways is India’s biggest airline, with 13,000 employees, including 1,400 pilots, 3,200 cabin crew and 650 engineers. “For all pilot training courses conducted by Jet Airways and by other contractual service providers on behalf of Jet Airways, DGCA will now be directly informed by the training institute that the pilot has completed the training in accordance with laid-down procedures and to the required standard. This statement is sent directly from the training institute, via email, to the head of flight crew licensing in DGCA,” the spokesman said.
Some carriers are willing to offer more to ensure quality. SpiceJet is offering an Rs 8 lakh signing bonus to attract well-qualified airline commanders as it aims to raise its fleet to 70 planes from 29 in the next two years, CEO Neil Mills said.