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The civil aviation sector is facing a dichotomy about its pilots as it stages a recovery from the severe disruptions to air travel due to the pandemic.

While junior pilots have been waiting on the bench for the past two years with a letter of intent but without any salary, airlines are battling a paucity of captains who can fly bigger jetliners.

“There must be around 200 such pilots who have a letter of intent from IndiGo. Most were hired by the airline before covid but are waiting to get the call from the airline," said an industry executive aware of the matter.

There are also a number of junior pilots who were laid off by Gulf-based airlines and are yet to either get reinstated by those carriers or secure job offers from Indian airlines.

A bench in the aviation sector means the holding period before being allowed to fly. IndiGo, the country’s biggest airline, did not respond to Mint’s queries. Queries sent to SpiceJet and Vistara also remained unanswered.

Industry watchers say that the carriers had hired many junior pilots expecting fleet and route expansions but are still to use their fleet to full capacity following two years of the pandemic that had severely hit the air travel industry.

Ironically, there is a shortage of captains because a large number of them have retired and the juniors are yet to complete their training hours to become a captain.

“There is an oversupply of first officers and a shortage of captains," said Vishok Mansingh, chief executive officer of Vman, an aviation leasing firm. Mansingh pegged the shortfall at about 25%.

India produces 700-1,000 commercial license pilots a year and to become a captain, a junior pilot has to put in about 1,500 flying hours and clear certain tests.

“The aviation industry in India is making a significantly fast recovery and in six to twelve months, the balance of supply and demand will be achieved to get the pilots on deck," said Ashwani Acharya, business unit head for CAE Simulation Training Centre.

While passenger traffic in August is around 52% more than a year earlier, it is still nearly 14% lower than the pre-pandemic levels seen in August 2019.

However, the high-yield international segment has shown a strong performance at around 2.6 million passengers in August, up 32% from the pre-covid levels, Icra said in a recent note.

Meanwhile, IndiGo is set to finally restore pre-covid salaries of its pilots by November. Others like SpiceJet and GoFirst are still to announce any timeline for the restoration of pre-covid salaries.

Commercial pilot licence holders spend between 50 lakh- 1 crore on flight schools and related courses.

“Some of the pilots on the bench have no option but to opt for other airlines where they shell out more money for their type rating to be in line with the new employer’s protocol. Some are forced to take up another loan," said a pilot.

However, the entry of new airlines such as Akasa Air and a revived Jet Airways and recruitment by Air India is set to make the market more competitive in terms of pay.

Recent announcements of fleet expansions by most airlines and Akasa’s salary hike is expected to be followed by others.

devina.sengupta@livemint.com

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