India’s pilot shortage is compounded by regulatory overreach, unplanned growth

Akasa Air launched operations on 7 August, 2022. (File Photo: PTI)
Akasa Air launched operations on 7 August, 2022. (File Photo: PTI)


  • The civil aviation regulator would be better off trying to improve the quality of training that Indian pilots receive

India’s civil aviation regulator, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), has only itself to blame for being dragged to court by Akasa Air. The low-cost carrier, India’s newest, has been crippled by the sudden exodus of 43 pilots, which it said forced it to cancel as many as 700 flights in August. It expects an equal number of cancellations this month, too.

An aggrieved Akasa Air moved the Bombay High Court, seeking 21 crore in damages from the pilots for failing to serve the mandatory notice period of six months for pilots and one year for commanders. Damages have been sought on account of revenue loss caused by cancelled flights, reputational loss to the airline, and the costs it had incurred on training the pilots.

The airline simultaneously moved the Delhi High Court, asking it to take action against the pilots. That’s because, unlike in most industries where the notice period forms a part of the terms of engagement between employer and employee, in the case of civil aviation, the DGCA has its own norms on notice periods for pilots and commanders. Failure to comply with the DGCA-mandated notice period can attract severe penalties, such as a ban on joining any other airline for a year and even cancellation of the pilot’s licence.

The root of the dispute is a 2005 order issued by the DGCA under its Civil Aviation Requirement (CAR) rules, in which it imposed a minimum notice period of six months on pilots of all ranks. The notification it issued at the time argued: “It has been observed that pilots are resigning without providing any notice to the airlines. In some cases, even groups of pilots resign together without notice and as a result airlines are forced to cancel their flights at the last minute. Such resignation by the pilots and the resultant cancellation of flights causes inconvenience and harassment to the passengers. Sometimes such an abrupt action on the part of the pilots is in the form of a concerted move, which is tantamount to holding the airline to ransom and leaving the travelling public stranded. This is a highly undesirable practice and goes against the public interest." It also said that it took about four months to train and license a pilot to operate an aircraft. Pilots-in-Command (PICs) additionally required flight hours as a co-pilot and had to pass another skill test.

In 2017 it issued updated guidelines, which noted that training replacement pilots could take “up to eight months" and thus increased the notice period to one year for PICs, while leaving it at six months for co-pilots.

This provision was apparently brought to stem the exodus of trained Indian pilots to foreign airlines. But the situation today is drastically different. India has the world’s fastest-growing aviation market. Indian airlines operate around 700 aircraft, with more than 1,200 expected to be added in the next five years. Since a typical commercial airline needs at least 14 to 16 pilots, there’s a potential requirement of 14,000 to 16,000 pilots in total.

India is, on paper, producing enough basic pilots with commercial pilot licences (CPL) to meet the demand. Last year the DGCA issued more than 1,200 CPL licences. But airlines are reluctant to hire CPL holders trained in poorly equipped Indian flight schools, because of which an estimated 10,000 CPL holders are jobless. Meanwhile the shortage of pilots has led to rampant poaching among airlines.

Instead of indulging in regulatory overreach (globally, most aviation regulators do not specify terms of employment) the DGCA would do better to address the quality problem. It needs to ensure that licensed flight training schools (India has 34, of which one is a deemed aviation university operated by the Centre) have the necessary infrastructure in terms of airworthy aircraft, simulators and properly trained instructors, as well as adequate access to airports for trainee pilots.

Airlines also need to walk the talk on training pilots. While most extract a service bond of five years, sky high training fees and sureties from trainee pilots, they are clearly not investing enough resources in training and prefer to laterally hire trained pilots instead. The DGCA should ensure that airlines are not allowed to grow their fleets without showing they have enough flight and maintenance crew.

Finally, the DGCA could also allow airlines to hire foreign pilots. As of the end of March, there were only 67 FATA (foreign aircrew temporary authorisation) holders in India out of the more than 9,000 pilots on the rolls of various operators. India’s demand-supply gap for pilots is a market problem that requires a market solution, not regulatory or judicial intervention.

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