With the rise in competition across the Indian aviation sector, the airlines in the country are making headlines but all for the wrong reasons. The carriers in the country have been found to be compromising on passenger safety as well as comfort, trying to cut corners in the wake of the pandemic, impairing the resumption of what was prior to COVID-19 the world's fastest-growing market.
The recent incidents of a SpiceJet 737 Max aircraft travelling from Delhi to Dubai, making an emergency landing in Karachi owing to a technical glitch, and the delay of as many as 900 IndiGo flights last week add to the multiple incidents in the past few months where airlines have taken scant regard for customers’ safety and comfort.
Taking cognizance of the increasing incidents the Indian aviation watchdog, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) have issued several notices and imposed fines on Indian airlines in the past few months.
However, this is not the first time when the Indian aviation sector has been under the radar for its disregard for safety. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic had stunted airline operations, the aviation sector was under scrutiny over passenger safety.
Going by the promise it holds, India is the third-largest aviation market in the world after the UK and China and is expected to grow tremendously over the next few years. The passenger traffic in the country is expected to grow at 6.2 per cent per annum by 2040. However, as the domestic sector gears up to fly again post the COVID-19 pandemic slump by adding new fleets, it faces the dual challenge of ensuring customer safety amidst the rising competition.
Untrained Pilots Or Lack Thereof
In February this year, the Minister Of State For Civil Aviation V K Singh informed Lok Sabha that India has an annual requirement of around 1,000 fresh commercial pilots against the current supply of about 200 to 300 pilots in the country.
The country currently has a total of 9,002 pilots employed across 11 domestic and international airlines, according to the data available on the DGCA website.
Notably, in 2020 the former Minister of Aviation Hardeep Singh Puri informed Rajya Sabha that India has a requirement of 9,488 pilots in the next five years. Puri had said that every year 700-800 commercial pilot licenses (CPLs) are issued by the DGCA, of which 30 per cent are issued to pilots trained in foreign flying training organizations (FTOs).
In order to mitigate the shortage of pilots, the Ministry of Civil Aviation in a statement said, “DGCA has introduced Online-On Demand Examination (OLODE) for the Aircraft Maintenance Engineers (AME) and Flying Crew (FC) candidates with effect from November 2021. This facility allows candidates to choose the date and time from the available exam slots. DGCA has modified its regulations to empower Flying Instructors with the right to authorize flight operations at FTOs. This was hitherto restricted to the Chief Flying Instructor (CFI) or Deputy CFIs only.”
“The Airports Authority of India (AAI) has brought out a liberalized FTO policy wherein the concept of airport royalty (revenue share payment by FTOs to AAI) has been abolished and land rentals have been significantly rationalized,” the ministry added.
However, experts believe these measures would not be the only solution to the existing problem of the pilot shortage.
Ameya Joshi, Founder, Network Thoughts opines, “The FTO policy goes a long way in helping with the pilot shortage. However, one has to also look at the quality of pilots which are being churned out. There is a fair number of unemployed pilots in the country and also a need for pilots but the match is not happening well, probably because of the quality."
“A good balance of quality and quantity is essential,” he adds.
Mark Martin, Founder, and CEO, Martin Consulting points towards the high cost of pilot training in India to be another reason for the shortage of pilots. According to the private aviation consultancy, The Pilot.in, any person aspiring for pilot training in a DGCA-reputed institute needs to pay an amount of Rs 35 to 40 lakh for 12 months.
Apart from the shortage of pilots, the aviation industry is also grappling with the incidents of flight operations by untrained pilots. In April, DGCA had barred 90 SpiceJet pilots over improper training and operations of Boeing 737 Max aircraft and issued a show-cause notice to the airline.
Singh said that the country currently has 34 FTOs approved by the DGCA. Between May 2020 and May 2021, AAI approved the establishment of FTOs in 9 airports. The country’s largest flying academy Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Udan Akademi (IGRUA) has also been permitted to carry out pilot training in Gondia, and Kalaburgi to enhance its flying hours and aircraft utilization.
However, Martin feels that more needs to be done to churn out quality pilots.“To be a commercial airline pilot, you need to have at least 500 to 1,000 hours of training. Pilots need to fly somewhere. Compared to Indian pilots, after their initial training the pilots across the USA, Australia, Germany, and other Western countries, start flying to remote places abroad in order to gain more hours. And that’s where we need to have a stronger focus on what comes after the training of pilots. What comes after basic CPL," Martin states.
Martin observes the need to have more quality FTOs to improve pilot training. “We only have one or two world-class training facilities for pilots. We need at least five more,” he notes.
Problem Within The Cockpit
Despite the DGCA issuing guidelines for less age gap between the captain and co-pilot, a big age gap between the two continues to pose a challenge for airlines. Owing to this, several incidents of mishaps have been reported in the past few years.
Several media reports previously quoted senior pilots alleging younger pilots of having no interest in learning about the aircraft and instead living the high life and getting drunk while on duty.
“The age gap between captain and co-pilot is seven to 10 years in most cases. The whole idea is to bring the age gap down to two to three years. Because sometimes the captain is too old and the co-pilot is too young. So, we need to maintain that balance. There is no harm in having an older pilot but a small age gap helps in retaining the crew as well as the longevity of the crew with fewer retirees. It is always going to have an advantage from that perspective,” Martin notes.
Shortage of Ground Staff
The airline industry worldwide was among the most affected by the COVID crisis. Not only did the airlines stall operations globally, but the ground staff also bore the maximum impact of the pandemic.
In India, things were no different. According to the government, between April 2020 and December 2021, of the 1.9 lakh employees across airlines, airports, ground handling, and the air cargo sector, the aviation industry laid off 19,200 employees or 10 per cent of its workforce.
According to a report by TeamLease, the Indian aviation industry currently has a deficit of as many as 15,800 employees for ground operations as well as 1,350 cabin crew staff.
Salary Cuts For Staff
The delay of IndiGo flights last week has been attributed to the absence of cabin crew staff owing to the discontentment over the salary as the airline imposed pay cuts this year. The DGCA has sought an explanatory report from the airline over the incident.
However, lack of salary or allowances has become a common phenomenon in the aviation sector. As per a report by The Times of India, while the flying allowance witnessed a steep reduction of 35 per cent, the cabin crew staff received a 20 per cent reduction in their domestic layover allowance.
Apart from IndiGo, the employees working with Air India have been drawing salaries below Rs 25,000 per month, whereas pilots employed by Air India Express have also witnessed a reduction in special pay allowance, domestic layover allowance, quick return allowance, check allowance, instructor allowance and examiner allowance, according to the report.
Drunk On Duty
Between January 2021 and March 2022, a total of 84 workers across 42 airports were found drunk on duty, according to DGCA. Of these 84 employees, 64 per cent failed the mandatory breath analyzer (BA) alcohol test.
Similarly, between January 1 and April 30, 2022, DGCA suspended nine pilots and 32 crew members of different airlines after they failed the pre-flight breath analyzer test.
In 2019, the DGCA issued a mandatory BA test for all airport workers as well as the cabin crew and pilots.
Cyberattacks On Rise
Another challenge that plagues the Indian aviation sector, is the growing incidents of ransomware attacks. In the recent one, a cyberattack had stalled the operations of certain SpiceJet systems and slowed down flight departures, leading to hundreds of passengers getting stranded after boarding flights for hours.
However, this is not the first time an airline fell prey to cyberattacks. In February last year, the data of as many as 45 lakh Air India passengers was leaked after the airline's passenger system - managed by air travel IT specialist SITA - was hit by a cybersecurity attack.
Raj Pagariya, a cybersecurity specialist and Partner at The Cyber Blog India explains, “There are certain aircraft systems that are mission-critical. And if the cyberattack happens in a mission-critical system it can become a problem and will have serious consequences. Not only for the particular airline where the attack has happened but for the other airlines that are operating in the same region. Such cyberattack incidents also pose risk for the entire stakeholders for the industry.”
As the aviation industry is heavily dependent on technology, from flight bookings to operations of flights, air traffic control, and management, the hacking of any one system would mean operational chaos and endangering the data of the passengers.
Martin observes that these cyberattacks have exposed the fault lines between the airline and aviation software systems.
“Almost all important critical airline software, like the flight dispatch software, operations management software, maintenance planning, and maintenance operations software are hosted on third-party cloud servers outside India which are not secure,” he states.
“We need to ask that when other industries are hosting their softwares into local cloud servers within India, why aviation industry is still lacking in the same,” Martin adds.
He points to a more vigilant approach by the DGCA and Ministry of Information and Technology along with Cert-In to audit the software systems of the airlines.
“DGCA needs to take stronger action to dedicate itself an integrated IT-aviation system audit team to look into the gaps and issues which most airlines are having. In 2022, and in the wake of recently renewed steps in IT and several other safety aspects, the DGCA should revamp and realign its way of functioning, so as to ensure better oversight for airlines,” Martin notes.