It takes a couple of years to make a pilot and close to a decade to make him a Captain capable of taking sound decisions in the air. This is a profession with long gestation times. Captains like ‘Sully’ Sullenberger represent a mountain of military-civil experience honed over decades. They cannot be created overnight. Neither do they come cheap.
Globally, we are headed for a pilot shortage of mammoth proportions. Boeing’s 2016 Pilot & Technician Outlook predicts that over 600,000 new commercial pilots will be required to fly the world’s fleet over the next 20 years. The current worldwide total of commercial pilots is estimated to be around 130,000 of which India has only around 6000 (less than 5%). As per reports, in India alone, over 2000 airline pilots will be required by 2018-19 – meaning over next two years, we need 40% more pilots than what we have today.
Airlines have already started casting their nets far & wide. State-owned Air India is hiring around 80 co-pilots for its wide-body B777 and B787 fleet. Most of these are CPL-holders with a type-rating on B737. They are low flight-time greenhorns, hired with the carrot of a future upgrade to the exclusive club of airline captains. Flight schools like the CAE-Oxford Academy at Gondia and Rae Bareilly have tie-ups with airlines for training raw pilots. Indigo runs a flight cadet program with Flight Training Adelaide, Australia. They have been fairly successful in hiring freshers and grooming them to become captains and trainers over the last ten years.
But there are large lead times involved. These programs cannot meet sudden spike in demand for pilots due to policy changes. Also, any domestic carrier folding up leaves in its wake a large number of qualified but unemployed pilots. These surges are difficult to predict and cannot be used for crew planning.
In India, the next game changer would be Modi Government’s recently launched UDAN Scheme. Designed to stimulate regional connectivity with flights covering distances up to 800 km, this will see a spike in short-haul operations of turboprops like the ATR 72 or Q400. Traditionally, pilots have preferred jets over turboprops as it kept their options open for transition to wide bodied aircraft. But we may soon see a reverse exodus, incentivised by airlines looking to encash on the UDAN boom.
The Asia-Pacific region is expected to be a key driver in the growth of commercial aviation. Recent studies by both FICCI-KPMG and FICCI-PWC show that India could rank among the top three aviation markets in the world by 2020. All stakeholders in aviation are excited about the days ahead. But where are the pilots, particularly the Captains, going to come from?
Recently, there was a move to increase the notice period for pilots to one year to prevent airlines ‘poaching’ from each other. It was widely resisted by the pilots’ fraternity. Fatigue limits are also under revision to extract more out of pilots than ever before. Both these are signs of strain developing in the availability of experienced captains. Meanwhile, inexperienced CPL holders continue to remain unemployed by the thousands (estimated between 5000 – 7000 in India).
Even as we bemoan the grim outlook on airline pilot availability world over, a large pool of experienced helicopter Captains are bearing the brunt of an industry beset with sluggish growth. Some of them are seasoned offshore Captains who have lost their jobs due to the downturn in oil & gas industry. Some are onshore Captains looking for a leg-up. They have flown it all – from simple single-engines to the most modern, fully automated, IFR helicopters. Then there are scores of rotary wing military pilots exiting the three services each year who, under present circumstances, find non-flying corporate roles more lucrative.
So while there is a problem of plenty on one side (helicopter captains), an acute shortage is building up on the other side (airline captains). Maybe it’s time for some cross-pollination.
There are ‘Rotor Transition Programs’ (RTP) in other parts of the world to help experienced helicopter pilots transition on to jets and turboprops. To me, it seems apt for India where commercial aviation is poised for 15-20% growth in the near term and innovative solutions are required to bridge the crew gap. I know of several helicopter pilots, especially military veterans, who would willingly contribute and sign up for such a program if there was a job at the end of it. If nothing else, the steep disparity in rotary & fixed wing pilots’ compensation should be incentive enough. Some helicopter pilots even have fixed wing time in their logbooks. The regulator can help by making some dispensations to account for rotary wing hours while obtaining a fixed wing licence. Airline operators should also be willing to consider appropriate changes in their command upgrade syllabus for transitioning helicopter captains.
Going a step further, airlines could even tie up with organisations like the Directorate General of Resettlement (DGR), Ministry of Defence to induct retiring helicopter pilots into such RTPs. The DGR runs many courses for facilitating resettlement of veterans where the training costs are shared, usually in the ratio of 60:40. But it doesn’t include RTPs or the like because pilots were usually considered ‘well looked after’. In this belief fed by the airline pilot’s success story, they discounted the rotary guys completely.
Today, command of a modern airliner is more about managing systems, decision making, working with air traffic procedures and taking responsibility for the safety of passengers – all of which come naturally to Captains with tons of experience. It is just on-type experience and some adaptations that are required. Why then, should highly experienced helicopter pilots remain unemployed (or under-employed) in this age of airline pilot shortage?
RTP could be one among many mitigating strategies for alleviating the looming shortage of commanders by balancing the talent pool between helicopters and fixed wing. Specifically in India, the proliferation of short-haul sectors through UDAN will provide opportunities for transitioning captains to cut their teeth in the airline industry before moving on to greener pastures, whichever side of the fixed/rotary divide it may lie. Any airline willing to seize the initiative on such a program may find their cockpits filling up with the right stuff without having to poach pilots or rely on ‘one-year-notice-period’ type of untenable policy changes.
It is not a zero sum game. There is enough to go around for everybody. Yet we continue to complain about pilot shortage and rely on expats while potential captains from the helicopter fraternity twiddle their thumbs. What a pity!
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2017. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views are personal.