Mumbai: Pearl Verma’s dreams of flying, aptly enough, are sending her far away from India, where a commercial’s pilot’s licence can be hers within 6-12 months, compared with the two years it takes here.

“I would rather train abroad," says the 17-year-old.

Verma has narrowed her choices to the Sydney Flight Training Centre in Australia or Pan Am International Flight Academy in Florida, a survivor from Pan American Airlines.

Hundreds of aspiring pilots, including Verma, are looking beyond India’s borders for their training. Not too long ago, they chose to stay closer to home, where flight academies were substantially cheaper than those abroad. Against an aviation boom and intense demand for pilot’s licences, that has changed.

Now, several academies overseas boast special sections on their websites to attract Indian students, while others are partnering with Indian schools.

But while students are turning to overseas options because they hope to get their training and licence quicker, they find themselves in for a long wait upon their return: exams to convert their foreign licences into Indian commercial licences are held only every three months. And regulations demand that conversions be done within six months—meaning, if students don’t pass, they likely have to leave again for training.

Flight path: Indian flying schools such as Chennai’s Sunsea Aviation Services do not offer a cost advantage anymore. (RA Chandroo./ Mint )

“There is acute shortage of experienced pilots in India. The existing training facilities are inadequate to create the required number of pilots, leading to dependence upon foreign pilots," says Vasudevan Thulasidas, chairman and managing director of National Aviation Co. of India Ltd, or Nacil, that runs Air India and Indian. “Since students are going to the US and other international destinations for training, the shortage of first officers are getting under control now," he adds.

Earlier, Indian flying schools had a cost advantage, with courses here costing about Rs6 lakh less than similar courses overseas, says G. Chandrasekaran, chief of operations at Sunsea Aviation Services Pvt. Ltd. But now that benefit no longer exists. “Students can get a commercial pilot licence by spending just as much overseas, so obviously you find an increasing preference to enroll at flying schools in other countries," he says.

Today, aviation courses in India can cost anywhere between Rs10 lakh and Rs18 lakh, while a similar course in the US could cost Rs18 lakh (about $45,000).

The demand has resulted in growth in the number of institutes that offer aspiring pilots assistance in getting admissions to schools overseas. “We were into ground training, but the problems faced by our students in completing the flying training in India prompted us to offer this service. The appreciation of the rupee has also made overseas study a viable option," says Vikas Yadav, a manager at the Pune branch of Indira Gandhi Institute of Aeronautics, IGIA.

IGIA, for example, has partnered with three schools—Basair Aviation College in Australia, WCC Masters Flying School in the Philippines and the US Flight Academy in Texas.

Sunsea Aviation, based in Chennai, has collaborations with Flight Academy of New Orleans in the US, Springbank Air Training College in Canada, Philippine Pilot Training Centre in the Philippines and Aerocare Flight Academy in South Africa.

Basair’s website shows that its courses for Indian students are booked until November.

According to some estimates, up to 2,000 Indian students are studying in flying schools overseas. While US and Australia have been popular choices, the Philippines has recently emerged as an equally attractive option because of the lower fees and also because Indian students do not need visas to study in that country.

While students may end up paying more than $45,000 for a course in the US, flying schools in the Philippines charge about $37,000. Almost 40% of the students that enroll with IGIA opt to go to flying schools in the Philippines.

Slowly, demand is growing to bring aviation regulations in line with the hunger for trained pilots.

“There are currently about 2,000 people who are eligible to fly, but have not yet got their commercial pilot licence in India because of the warped procedures involved," says an industry official, who did not wish to be identified.

One of the grouses is that the conversion exams are not conducted frequently enough. Indian regulations stipulate that a licence has to be converted within six months of completion of the course. However, the directorate general of civil aviation only conducts exams once in three months. The percentage of successful candidates is also very low.

“At the last exam, only about 250 of the almost 2,000 students cleared," says an official at one of the institutes. “This means that students who do not clear the exam in two consecutive attempts have to once again go overseas and complete a minimum number of flying hours before they can appear for the exam."

“It is a little hard to believe that even students who train at the best training schools in the world aren’t good enough to clear the examination. These pilots get more and more frustrated with the system and eventually leave," says the father of one pilot who wasted three years trying to get through the exam after training at a leading flight school in the US. “Given that the aviation industry in the country is facing a huge shortage of pilots, it’s ridiculous that we let them languish while we hire pilots from other countries," he adds.

Capt. Yashraj Tongia, chief flying instructor of Yash Air Ltd, says going abroad will not help any candidate as it will cost more to get quality training. “It will take at least 8-10 months to convert his foreign CPL to Indian CPL. Moreover, it will cost more overseas than in India, if a candidate wants to get high quality training similar to India. I believe directorate general of civil aviation is taking steps to speed up approving pilots," he adds.

The other objection is that the medical test before a candidate is given a licence in India is only conducted at army hospitals. “The wait list at the hospital is so long that it is fully booked until early 2009," says another official at one of the training schools, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Students who complete their training overseas earn a commercial pilot licence from the country they are trained in. They have to then appear for two exams and medical test to convert the licence to an Indian commercial pilot licence. They are qualified to fly aircraft in the country only after they successfully complete these procedures. Given the demand, many freshly graduated pilots land jobs that pay up to Rs1.5 lakh a month.

“In the context of shortage of medical exam centres, the government has now approved three more medical centres in this week for conducting initial Class I medical examinations for pilots. The approved medical centres include Max Health Care Institute in Panchsheel Park in New Delhi, Dr Balabhai Nanavati Hospital in Mumbai and Apollo Hospital in Chennai," says a ministry of civil aviation official, who didn’t want to be named.

“The government is also considering outsourcing of pilot examination to speed up the approval process. It is also in the process of setting up a pilot training institute at Gondia in Maharashtra, and state-run flying training school Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Uran Akademi, or IGRUA, has tied up with Canada’s CAE to enhance the quality of training in India," he says. “The pass ratio in India is lower as the standards are higher here. Now, we have quarterly examinations and online facilities to increase the number of pilots. The upgradation of IGRUA will help to create more pilots in the coming years."

Meanwhile, Verma has crunched the numbers and decided the overseas route made more sense. Inspired by her father, a former Air Force pilot, Verma wants to become a pilot by the time she is 19.

“Everyone’s worried," she concedes. “This is my dream. I can’t back off."