Atmanirbhar Versus Up In The Air
→ The government is making a serious effort to reverse the trend of pilots leaving India for flying training, but many ifs and buts remain.
The three years—2020, 2021 and 2022—have been nothing less than devastating for aviation, both globally and in India. For the first time in the history of the sector ever, all scheduled flights across the globe were halted, airports were deserted, pilots were out of jobs and airlines had spare aircraft: all dressed up but nowhere to go.
Yet, ASAP charters two founders Ashish Bhushan and Sudeep Narula say that 2021 has been their single best year in terms of sales since they set up shop. The duo managed to sell 12 of the four-seater Piper Archer DX in 2020 and 2021, far exceeding the usual one or two aircraft sales per year since they got into the business back in 2008.
This sudden surge in demand for training aircraft is led by a plan hatched by the government, spearheaded by the Ministry of Civil Aviation to try and stop the exodus of aspiring pilots going out of India for their flying training.
Currently, around 40% of the potential candidates head to the U.S. and a few to Europe and even Singapore. “If they can be trained here, we not only save foreign exchange but also create more jobs in India,” said a MOCA official, who did not wish to be named.
Post-pandemic, MOCA estimates India has a requirement of around 1,000 fresh commercial pilots per annum over the next five to six years. There is a large back order of close to 700 aircraft by IndiGo, Vistara, SpiceJet Ltd. and other carriers here. Air India is expected to add to these numbers soon.
Till now, the demand for seats to train as a pilot in India has been far in excess of supply. The number of CPL holders produced by Indian flying training organizations in 2021 is 504, higher than the 430 CPL holders produced by Indian FTOs in the pre-Covid year 2019, but still lower than the demand.
There are 34 FTOs approved by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation although only three of these operate at scale. Of these two are government run and managed—the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Uran Academy and the National Flying Training Institute in Gondia. Chimes Aviation Academy, backed by industrialist Uday Punj, is the only private academy with some scale.
To increase CPL training in India, the Airports Authority of India in September 2020, approved a liberalised policy wherein the concept of airport royalty (revenue share payment by FTOs to AAI) was abolished and land rental charges were significantly reduced.
As a result of the new thrust, the government received bids for all nine FTO slots in March 2021 despite the aviation sector going through a serious financial crisis due to the pandemic.
Award letters were issued in May and October 2021 for nine FTOs to be established at five airports at Belagavi (Karnataka), Jalgaon (Maharashtra), Kalaburagi (Karnataka), Khajuraho (Madhya Pradesh) and Lilabari (Assam).
Soft launch of two FTOs at Kalaburagi was done on Aug. 15, 2021. Of the lot awarded, the Lilabari FTO is expected to take off soon.
Ministry sources said that Kalaburagi and Jalgaon should happen by September, and Belagavi and Khajuraho by December although the industry is skeptical on whether this will happen as MOCA officials claim.
In the second round of FTO creation, the tender process was aimed at setting up 15 new FTOs at 10 airports, namely Cooch Behar, Tezu, Jharsuguda, Deoghar, Meerut, Kishangarh, Hubli, Kadapa, Bhavnagar and Salem airports. However, award letters have been issued for six and these are expected to get started by December 2023, as per ministry sources.
Government officials say that a number of other steps have been taken to help FTOs. DGCA has introduced online-on-demand examinations for aircraft maintenance engineers and flying crew with effect from November 2021.
This facility allows candidates to choose the date and time from the available exam slots. DGCA has also modified its regulations to empower flying instructors with the right to authorise flight operations at FTOs. This was earlier restricted to the chief flying instructor and depended on his availability at all times.
To boost pilot training, MOCA is not relying only on private FTOs. A new spring in the step has been added to India's largest public flying academy—the government-run Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Uran Akademi at Amethi, which has been permitted to carry out pilot training in Gondia (Maharashtra) and Kalaburagi (Karnataka) to enhance its flying hours and aircraft utilisation, which get severely affected during winter months due to low visibility.
IGRUA has now commenced operating on all weekends and holidays too. Consequently, it completed 19,019 flying hours during the year 2021 as compared to 15,137 hours in the pre-Covid year 2019, an increase of over 25%.
Many Ifs And Buts
Good intentions notwithstanding, industry players however say the progress of the first set of license awardees has been painfully slow and that while it is a good idea for the government to encourage more training to happen at home, it is not necessarily the most prudent decision to allow a large number of small players.
"Flying training has attracted many players with spare cash hoping to make a quick buck and some of these tend to be fly-by-night. In flying training, this is particularly of concern as it can be a safety concern,” said an industry veteran. Accidents tend to happen during flying training far more commonly than in regular flying, partly due to the nature of the activity.
Overall, there’s no denying that flying training in India has grown and things have vastly improved in the last two decades. In the last few years, credible private players like Chimes (Madhya Pradesh) and GATI (Bhuvaneshwar) have established themselves but the business still tends to attract many who are attracted by the glamor and tend to be shortsighted in their goals and approach.
Industry sources also argue that the auction system for allotment of airfields is a shortsighted approach as they feel this approach tends to compromise on safety.
“This leads to a situation where the contract is bagged by those who offer the highest return to the authorities and other parameters like authenticity and commitment tend to get ignored,” said the CEO of one of the FTOs, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Two, existing players say that even as the government tries to attract new players, it must introspect on why the existing failures have failed to grow and expand.
It is only now in 2022 that Chimes, almost 15 years after it started, is doubling capacity and will soon be producing close to 200 pilots, up from 70-100 annually.
Industry sources argue that it might perhaps be better for the authorities to introspect why the existing players have failed to grow and expand in the last decade or so.
“As I see it, 3-4 big, well funded operators with a razor sharp focus on safety might be a safer bet in India than this approach of all and sundry being permitted based on auction of airfields,” said an industry veteran.
Players cite a host of issues right from delays in clearing new training aircraft to absurd rules that end up restricting the number of available flying hours.
Training aircraft imported by FTOs are often more on the ground than in the air.
For instance, a new Slovenian training aircraft imported by an FTO 14 months ago is still to fly as the certificate of airworthiness has taken so long to obtain.
A shortage of engineers and qualified personnel has led to an aircraft imported by Trivandrum Flying Club to have flown less than 100 hours although the aircraft has been around over five years.
Many pointless rules and regulations hamper growth too. Until very recently, there was a diktat requiring the nod of the chief flight inspector before any training flight took off.
“Unless the chief signed off, the training could not commence. This led to ridiculous situations where a prolonged lunch would end up shortening the flying hours available,” explained one of the industry sources.
The FTOs filed a writ petition to get this stipulation removed and it took nine months but was worth the effort.
“One administrative change with zero investment has helped increase the total flying training hours,” said Harsh Vardhan Pratap Singh, who runs Falcon, an FTO in Reva.
According to him, authorities should be more in sync and less combative in their approach before it sets goals like becoming a global hub for training. India, he argues, must “ first catch up and then compete”. A combination of overregulation, lack of technical knowledge and skilled manpower pulls India far behind in the race.
Jati Dhillon, an industry veteran, seasoned commander and trainer echoes his thoughts. “A fuller examination of why we require a certain rule or safety measure is needed. The purpose of regulation should not be to hamper but to facilitate.”
Dhillon said that in his years of experience in India, he has found that more often than not the overriding concern of regulators is to either “fail a candidate” or to “prove his incompetence” instead of encouraging candidates to prove their worthiness.
For instance, if a pilot doesn’t clear the CPL written test, he has to undergo a 90-day cooling period before he’s allowed to sit for it again. Why should this be so ? Candidates should be encouraged and permitted to take the required clearance tests as and when they feel ready for it.
Government and MOCA officials counter these allegations and say that this turns into a “blame game”. They say that just like the airlines, many players in the FTO space do not have the required expertise or professionalism to run their outfits competently.
These sometimes fold up and then they lay the blame squarely on the authorities or rules and regulations, which they argue is “patently unfair”.
“If you run your business to the ground, why blame the authorities. Introspect and see where you went wrong. After all, others are running similar outfits quite successfully,” said a senior MOCA official.
Need To Build Human Capital
Bobby Sharma, CEO, Chimes said that too many players tend to operate like a “mom and pop store” and are not focussed on building scale. Most of the training schools do not focus on building human capital, the most critical factor in training, he said.
Human capital and the acute shortage of manpower, especially comptent flight trainers, is perhaps the crux and the primary reason the sector is skeptical of the government’s lofty plans.
“High quality of manpower and finding trainers willing to relocate to locations where such FTOs are based remains a daunting task,” said Bhushan, a former IAF pilot who now runs ASAP charters.
Often, the authorities draw comparisons with India which many feel fall flat since the level of development and quality of life varies so drastically. In the U.S., no matter where one is the overall development of areas and quality of life on offer is very different. In contrast, in India, attracting any kind of talent to teach flying is very difficult in remote towns and districts.
The airfields are typically “back of beyond” locationally, and not the best option for good instructors who have to leave their families behind in metros. As a result, the flying schools attract substandard talent who fail to find similar opportunities in the cities.
So, even as the industry welcomes the government’s move to become “atma nirbhar”, it remains wary of all this talk of India becoming a global hub. As one industry veteran sums it up: ”Set your own house in order before peeking at the neighbor’s backyard.”
Anjuli Bhargava is a journalist, with reportage and commentary on India’s aviation space for over 25 years.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BQ Prime or its editorial team.