The crowded skies over India have set off a talent war like never before, with the upcoming launch of Akasa Air, return of Jet Airways under its new promoters and the Tata Group’s takeover of Air India.With the new promoters of the two major airlines and the new entrant going all guns blazing to rope in the best for a perfect take off, incumbents are scurrying to retain their top pilots and cabin crew with bonuses and pay hikes to thwart attempts at poaching.Industry experts, however, fear the addition of new planes and increased demand for pilots will force carriers to hire foreign pilots, which in addition to rising fuel costs, will dent the balance sheets of aviation companies.“The airlines do not have time to build talent and will need to hire from the market. In this case, the existing leader will face the brunt. There will be some form of retention bonus rolled out and marginal hikes for the top talent,” said Nitin Sethi, chief executive officer of human capital business at consulting firm Aon India, told Mint.Sethi said that expat pilots will be hired but their numbers will not be as high as 7-8 years ago as airlines will walk a tight rope between talent costs and high fuel prices.The talent tussle will heighten as Air India, Jet Airways and Akasa Air conduct recruitment drives.According to a PTI report, 55% of IndiGo’s domestic flights were delayed on Saturday as a large number of cabin crew members took sick leave.The report linked their absence to recruitment interviews scheduled by Air India on that particular day.Both IndiGo, India’s top airline by marketshare, and Air India did not respond to queries sent on Monday.The talent war is likely to intensify, specially for cabin crew and pilots.“Expect significant inductions in cabin crew and flight crew. Constrains around pilots is likely to be serious in 1-2 years. Movement of pilots and cabin crew will follow a logical industry trend but shift from weaker to stronger airlines is not surprising,” said Kapil Kaul, CEO for Indian subcontinent and the Middle East at aviation consultancy CAPA.Airlines, both new and old, are conducting regular recruitment drives to attract talent.“Today we have close to 400 employees across all our functions. For the next several months, we will add approximately 175 additional employees per month,” said Vinay Dube, founder and CEO at Akasa Air.“We expect to fly around 18 aircraft by the end of March 2023 with an employee strength of close to 2,000 employees,” said Dube.Akasa Air, backed by billionaire investor Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, expects to start scheduled commercial flights later this month.Route expansions are also propelling more recruitment. Air Asia conducted recruitment drives last Thursday to support its network expansion to Lucknow with daily direct flights connecting Bengaluru, Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Goa.According to the Indian Aviation Outlook FY2023 by CAPA, domestic traffic is expected to reach 130-140 million passengers this financial year though a tad less than the FY2020 levels. International traffic is expected to reach 55 to 60 million passengers, around 20% below the pre-covid levels.For some, the nostalgic tug of getting back former employees is also leading to uptick in hiring.For instance, Jet Airways received more than 2,000 applications after opening up posts on social media on 24 June for former cabin crew.“In the last six months (since January), we have received more than 10,000 unsolicited applications in addition to the ones we have received for specific openings. We will soon start hiring for operational roles other than cabin crew in alignment with our business plan, once we have made a decision about our aircraft choice. Many operational roles depend on the aircraft we choose to operate with,” Nakul Tuteja, vice president, human resources and administration, at Jet Airways said last week.