New Delhi: Late on a Monday evening, Rajesh Pandey is lifting suitcases at the airport. He counts them out loud, to no one in particular. After every third suitcase is loaded onto the back of a tractor-bed, Pandey looks up to see how many more are left to go.
There’s at least a hundred more suitcases, and it’s not even rush hour at New Delhi’s domestic airport. “Friday night is the worst,” he said, standing inside a hot, noisy room behind the ticket counters where bags, suitcases and boxes are quickly piling up.
Three years ago, Pandey used to make Rs4,500 a month. Today, he makes about Rs12,000 a month. He says his salary has almost tripled during the three times he’s changed employers.
But salary increase is not uncommon for jobs in the booming aviation industry where trained workers are increasingly becoming rare, even for jobs like baggage handling.
A report by trade body Assocham, released last year, had said that by 2010, the industry might create almost 2.5 lakh jobs. Those will span the entire spectrum of an airline industry still in its infancy—from the high profile ones of pilots and cabin crew to the more humdrum jobs of baggage handlers and ticketing agents.
For three years, the industry has been expanding rapidly, next only to its Chinese counterpart. In 2006 alone, passenger traffic surged 40% to 33 millions, and several hundred foreign pilots and engineers got jobs paying Rs2-3 lakh a month because airlines could not find experienced local workers to fill those slots.
At the same time, the aviation boom has become a part of the India growth story. It has made India one of the few growth markets for global giants such as Seattle, US-based Boeing Company and EADS-owned plane manufacturer Airbus Industrie, that estimate that India’s airlines could spend almost $75 billion (Rs322,500 crore) on new aeroplanes by 2020.
At an airline and airport exposition in Pragati Maidan, far from the airport where Pandey spends his day lifting suitcases, another dimension of the aviation boom is in evidence: ambition.
A job mart that was part of the exposition has drawn candidates primarily seeking cabin crew jobs, and a big group of young people (both men and women) dressed in business suits and skirts is gathered at a counter for United Breweries Ltd-owned Kingfisher Airlines. At the end of a day, the airline has collected 150 applications.
In three days “we received 630 applications from pilots, cabin crew and engineers,” said Saikat Roy Chowdhury, general manager of Exhibitions India Group, which put together the exposition, one of the several aviation-related events in New Delhi in the last few months.
Amid the crowd of smartly dressed young men and women, Dharma Raj Mani, 20, strolls confidently in jeans and sneakers, picking up leaflets and quizzing airline company representatives about the intricacies of the industry.
Mani, an aeronautical engineering student, says he is at the job mart to make casual enquiries about jobs in defence and aircraft manufacturing. He feels that his peers are not aiming high enough. “It is okay to be a steward or an air hostess, but their job is limited to looking after passengers,” he said.
A farmer’s son and a dreamer, Mani moved to Delhi from Bandu, a small village in Bihar, to study at the School of Engineering and Technology in Dwarka. He shares a room with a friend in the expensive suburb near the Delhi airport to survive on a budget of Rs2,500 a month.
The next day, standing on the low roof of a dhaba, his head twisting to follow the path of aeroplanes in the sky, Mani talks about his ambition: he wants to help build an Indian commercial aeroplane.
“By 2020, I see India as a developed country. I want us to have a chance in the aviation industry,” he says. “I want to make an aircraft in India.”
For a country which for decades had just two state-run carriers, experienced managers can be sparse, forcing new airlines to hire expats. Foreigners today populate the top ranks of airlines such as Jet Airways, the Deccan Aviation-owned Air Deccan, and IndiGo. Jet Airways chief executive Wolfgang Prock-Schauer is German, and Air Deccan’s chief operating officer Warwick Brady is a South African who made a career at UK-based low-cost pioneer EasyJet. IndiGo looked to the US, hiring Bruce Ashby, a vice-president at US Airways, as its chief executive officer.
For some non-resident Indians, the aviation boom is an opportunity to grab a job they love, in a country they love, says a pilot at Jet Airways, India’s biggest domestic airline.
“I must have spent 10 years flying all over Europe,” he said, asking not to be named because his airline doesn’t approve of foreign pilots speaking to the press. “But I never stopped missing India.”
He had worked for Iberia, a Spanish airline that in 2006 carried as many passengers as all of India’s domestic airlines put together, but as salaries for pilots in India approached international levels, he switched airlines. He wouldn’t say exactly how much he makes, but said, “I fly fewer hours and live a better life.”
That’s not unusual in the aviation industry—for experienced foreigners to be able to demand salaries equivalent to what they make internationally. For instance, according to government estimates, in the next five years, India will face a shortage of almost 5,000 pilots who will be needed to fly the nearly 300 aeroplanes that Indian carriers have on order.
The demand for pilots is finding resonance in training schools in towns as small as Ujjain in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat’s Mehsana.
At Ujjain’s Yash Air School, Himanshu Chopra, who finished his schooling from Mumbai’s Patkar College, is one among thousands of young Indian men flocking for pilot training. Chopra first thought of becoming a pilot when he climbed into the cockpit of an unused Tata Steel Falcon 2000 plane at a hangar in Mumbai last year. “Since then, I haven’t thought of anything else and am now a student working towards a commercial pilot licence,” he says.
But the ambitious 19-year-old is clear he does not want to fly the small Falcon; his eyes are on a much bigger plane. “I will fly any Boeing jet. In most Airbus planes, you are only a cockpit manager unlike in the Boeing where you get the feel of a large aircraft much better,” says Chopra.
The pilot training, he hopes, will earn him, in addition to a fat salary cheque, respect. “People look at you differently because a majority of people in the country haven’t flown in a plane. You get so much respect from your family and friends,” says the second son of a government employee and homemaker mother.
In dozens of other cities all across India, the aviation industry has created something much less tangible than opportunities for global companies—something not as easily measured. It has given dreams to many young people. Dreams of flying around the world, earning salaries many times that of their parents, of escaping the small towns that dot the Indian landscape—towns like Bareilly, Karnal, Patiala and Siliguri, where cabin crew training schools are sprouting.
In the next five years, these schools will graduate almost 40,000 young men and women who will hope to become an air hostess or a flight steward. For many, that dream may not end well. Not all of them will get the job they are paying Rs1 lakh to train for, because in spite of the industry’s expected 30-40% growth, the demand for air hostesses and stewards is expected to be about 25,000 over the next five years.
Many hopeful flight attendants and stewards end up here in a fenced-off yard in Dwarka, sitting inside a plane that doesn’t fly, and which hasn’t flown since 2002 when it met with a mishap on a runway in Delhi and was sold off in pieces that were welded together a few kilometres away.
But that doesn’t matter to the 154 young men and women sitting inside the grounded plane at the Frakfinn Institute of Air Hostess Training.
After all, not too many of them have flown before either.
“I think about it all the time—what will it be like to be in a flying aeroplane,” said Lakshmi Priya, who at 18 is one of the youngest, and most enthusiastic, students here. “I have an uncle who flew once; he ate a lot of chocolates.”
Shikha Kaul, 31, is a former SwissAir air hostess who now trains at the school preparing students for jobs in the industry her Kashmiri parents once were afraid of.
“What good Kashmiri boy will marry you?” Kaul remembers her mother asking, when she gave an exam to join SwissAir in 1998 sitting next to young women wearing “mini-skirts and micro-mini skirts”.
Before these young men and women, almost all below 23 years of age, can go work for an airline, Kaul teaches them how to groom themselves, how to be more confident and assertive. But most of all, she wants them to be more realistic, to perhaps dream a little less.
“Most of them think this is all glamour, but I shatter that dream the first day,” she said. “You’re not going meet Shah Rukh Khan in the economy section of a low-cost airline.”
She also works on their confidence. The unspoken fact here is this: under all the glossy make-up, all the language training and the months spent memorizing cocktail recipes and safety instructions, these are mostly nervous kids and no matter what Kaul tries, she can’t fully prepare them for the reality of their jobs, not when so many have never flown before.
But oh the lure of glamour. In her final days of her course, Miss Lucknow 2006, Sweksha Pandey, 20, has a job waiting for her at Kingfisher Airlines, long known for hiring beautiful young women as air hostesses. Mr Hyderabad, Arfat Khan, 21, charming, broad-shouldered and ever-smiling, landed a job on a corporate jet.
In the hulk of the aeroplane, baking in the field near Dwarka, a batch of students is taking hasty notes as a teacher talks about oxygen cylinders.
“Were you told in your theory class how to start the flow of oxygen?” she asked.
No, the students reply.
The teacher was stumped. There she stood, standing in a plane that will never fly, facing a class full of students who want to fly forever, trying to explain to they who have never seen an oxygen cylinder how to operate one. “You twist the valve on the cylinder like you twist a lightbulb into a socket,” she explains—improvising and hoping for the best.
(Tarun Shukla contributed to this story.)