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Pilot shortage likely to hit growth of India's domestic airlines

Airlines have been forced to cancel their flights and rework their schedules, constraining cash flows and delaying vendor payments

Aneesh Phadnis  |  Mumbai 

Airlines stock photo
Airlines stock photo

The boom in domestic air travel has led to congested terminals and flight delays because the infrastructure at airports has not kept pace with the rate of growth.

But India’s new regional are facing another challenge — lack of

The stress signs are visible. have been forced to cancel their flights and rework their schedules, constraining cash flows and delaying vendor payments.

Hyderabad-based regional operator TruJet cancelled 7 per cent and 3 per cent of its scheduled flights in November and December, respectively. This level of cancellation has been the highest among all carriers.

In August, Zoom Air cancelled all its flights after a bird hit damaged the engine of its aircraft in Durgapur. A lack of navigation aids and limited hours of operations (referred to as watch hours) in smaller airfields and weather also contributed to delays and cancellations.

Flight disruptions have also resulted in delayed payments to vendors. Last week Ireland-based lessor Elix Aviation Capital threatened to ground three ATR-72 turboprop planes it has leased to TruJet over payment. The dispute has been resolved.

“We are working with the TruJet management to enable the business to move forward,” said Tom Dalton, commercial director, Elix Aviation.

“There is no cash crunch, but there is a shortage of With our four planes, we can operate 40 daily flights but because of the shortage of pilots, we are doing only 22 flights. We are recruiting 18 foreign and we are also providing command training to our first officers,” said Vishok Mansingh, chief executive officer (CEO), TruJet.

Mansingh, who has worked in Kingfisher and Blue Dart, took over as CEO last October.

His appointment came four months after Megha Engineering and Infrastructure acquired control of the airline.

Domestic air traffic grew 17 per cent and crossed 100 million last year. Traffic is estimated to grow 15-20 per cent this year with the induction of planes and expansion of the central government’s regional connectivity scheme.

Aviation consultancy CAPA expects big domestic airlines to add a record 124-130 planes while regional airlines will add another 20-22 planes in FY19.

Regional airlines will require both capital and a bigger crew.

Pilot training will be another critical factor and CAPA estimates domestic airlines will require an additional 10,000 pilots over 10 years.

“The shortage of pilots is a global issue and the solution for airlines is to develop training facilities and simulators,” said Bombardier’s head of marketing (Asia Pacific), Ross McKeand.

Koustav Dhar, chief executive officer of Zoom Air, agrees the shortage of pilots slowed expansion plans. “We have three CRJ 200LR planes and have been able to utilise only two of them fully because of the shortage. We have 20 pilots now and are adding 16 additional captains by the end of March,” Dhar said.

He added that the airline would induct four planes by June and would increase the number of daily flights from nine to 32.

G R Gopinath, who has relaunched Air Deccan, said the state of airports in the country was not in keeping with the Prime Minister’s regional connectivity vision. He said he had been unable to get a night parking bay in Mumbai and slots for flights to Kolhapur.

Around 25 per cent of slots at airports should be reserved for regional connectivity, he added.

“The government must frame an equitable policy which benefits airlines and compensates the airports too,” Gopinath said.

Freight first as jet makers study single-pilot airplanes Once there were three on the flight deck. Then the number of flight crew fell to two when the Boeing 757 changed the way cockpit were designed in the 1980s. Now, jet makers are studying what it would take to go down to a single pilot, starting with cargo flights. The motivation is simple: saving airlines tens of billions of dollars a year in pilot salaries and training costs if the change can be rolled out to passenger jets after it is demonstrated safely in the freight business. But with the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and a deliberate crash by a Germanwings pilot in the last few years, earning public trust and ensuring safety is key. The issues loom large as single-pilot flying concepts are fleshed out at the Singapore Airshow this week. “We are studying that, and where you will first see that is probably in cargo transport, so the passenger question is off the table,” Boeing Research & Technology Vice-President Charles Toups said of one-pilot operations. It would take a “couple of decades” to persuade passengers to take a single-pilot jet, he said, adding that gaining public support for the concept would be a step-by-step process starting with proliferation of self-driving cars. Boeing co-operates with General Motors to develop technologies for autonomous flight. -Reuters

First Published: Fri, February 09 2018. 05:54 IST