In February this year, IndiGo, India’s largest airline by fleet and domestic market share, announced that it
would cut up to 2 percent of its schedule as it battles crew shortages. The airline had initially blamed the network-wide cancellations on the NOTAMs and diversions triggered by bad weather impacting crew duty time. A few days ago, GoAir cancelled flights across its network.
While the number was smaller than IndiGo, the impact is higher since GoAir is one-fifth of IndiGo in size by the fleet. GoAir, too, blamed the crew shortage on excess utilisation of pilots due to diversions and bad weather across the country. While for both IndiGo and GoAir shortage of pilots and the bad weather and diversions are indeed part of the reasons, what comes out is how precarious the pilot situation is in the country!
Interestingly, this comes in a year when one large airline in the country collapsed and the overall fleet growth has been modest, unlike previous years. This November, the government said that there are currently 436 expat pilots in the country. IndiGo has 239 while Alliance Air and GoAir have 64 each. Spicejet has 33, Trujet operates with 21 expat pilots while Vistara and Star Air have 8 and 4 respectively. Yet, pilot shortages plague the industry and leads to schedule disruption which eventually impacts the flying public.
A severe shortage
It is estimated that currently there are 8,000 pilots in India for a commercial fleet of 650+ aircraft. Both Airbus and Boeing have been gung ho about the potential in India. While this year, both the leading manufacturers did not specify exact projection for India, last year Boeing had said that it foresees a demand of 2,380 aircraft for India by 2038. A year earlier, Airbus had predicted a demand of 1,750 aircraft for India by 2036. At the current ratio of pilots and commercial aircraft fleet, the requirement for pilots will balloon in excess of 28,000 in the next two decades. IndiGo has a large orderbook of 700+ aircraft while Spicejet has 200+ B737 MAX aircraft on order. Go Air has nearly 100 more aircraft on order and the two TATA airlines – Vistara and AirAsia India have been looking at opportunities to make a mark on the aviation scene.
Airlines must run like well-oiled machines and while each part is equally important and irreplaceable, pilots are the most expensive in the operations set-up comprising airport staff, cabin crew, engineering staff and cockpit crew. In an environment like India, where airlines operate on margins as thin as a boarding pass, having anything in excess in an overhead which can be best avoided.
What are the reasons that led to this situation?
Volatile delivery schedule: This year was characterised with problems for both the Airbus A320neo family and the B737 MAX. With an uncertain delivery schedule, airlines seemed to be cautious to recruit pilots and have them not fly as many hours as permitted by the regulator means huge expenditure for the airline. In the past, airlines the world over have offered leave without pay in cases where the airlines had excess pilots. Finding a right balance has always been a challenge when delivery schedules have gone for a toss. Availability of Jet Airways pilots: As Jet Airways suspended operations in April this year, the market was flooded with pilots as well as planes. While SpiceJet took the maximum planes which earlier operated with Jet Airways, the pilots went to SpiceJet, Vistara and others. While SpiceJet and Vistara had the B737s which earlier operated for Jet Airways, IndiGo and GoAir operate the A320 family aircraft and the B737 pilots had to undergo type-rating to qualify for the A320 family operations. The country did not have ample simulators and training facilities to fulfil the sudden demand and that has led to airlines having pilots on their rolls but not yet certified to fly the aircraft in their fleet. Attrition: India is surrounded by markets which are also growing at breakneck speeds. Airlines from the middle east and south-east Asia have been growing at faster rates than airlines in India. Often, these airlines are profitable and give out handsome bonuses and packages. Coupled with the call of foreign shores, Indian pilots have spread across the region from UAE to Vietnam! Will things change in 2020?
That’s too difficult to predict. Why? Because there hasn’t been any change in situation with either the Pratt & Whitney powered A320neo family or the B737MAX aircraft which would comprise the bulk of aircraft inductions in India going forward.
In this case, none of the airlines operating knows the future of inductions. IndiGo and GoAir are under scrutiny from the regulator – Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) for engines while Spicejet has a lot of aircraft ready with Boeing. As and when issues are resolved, there could be rapid inductions in Indian skies and that again would put a strain on the pilots and their availability. In absence of a clear date of induction, airlines would be cautious in inducting pilots and rightly so since it adds to the cost.
Most airlines are trying to stitch tie-ups with aviation academies for training or even for type-rating, so have a steady flow of pilots who can join their fleet. Yet, pilot training is not everything – India is a case where there are many pilots who haven’t found jobs and there are airlines that haven’t found enough pilots. The bridge could well be a finishing school like in other professions!
Ameya Joshi is the founder of aviation analysis blog NetworkThoughts. Ameya writes a lot on aviation. You can catch all his columns here.