Life of an Indian pilot: Extra hours, high EMIs and a fat salary that's often delayed

Despite a huge demand for them, pilots in India are in a sorry state. And that is not good news.

February 19, 2019 / 12:47 PM IST
Airlines usually give pilots specially prepared meals. Pilots and co-pilots are often given different meals to lower the risk of both getiing food poisoning. (Photo: Reuters)

Airlines usually give pilots specially prepared meals. Pilots and co-pilots are often given different meals to lower the risk of both getiing food poisoning. (Photo: Reuters)

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The day hadn't ended well for Ayesha*, a pilot at one of India's low-cost airlines. Her final flight of the day was delayed by three hours, and embarrassed, she hadn't even waited to say bye to passengers, something that the 26-year-old liked to do. Ayesha was waiting at the tarmac when she was told that her taxi was not coming, and she would have to take the bus along with passengers to the terminal.

Avoiding eye contacts with fliers - lest someone asked her about the delay  - Ayesha waited impatiently for the bus to reach the terminal. The flight had landed past midnight, and it was now nearly 1 am. Ayesha just wanted to get back home and crash.

Then her phone rang.

"Report for the 6 am flight," said the manager who handled pilot rostering. Ayesha refused flat out.

But he insisted, saying that there was a shortage of pilots. "Please don't make me fly," Ayesha was now pleading. "I have been flying for six days, and it's my off tomorrow. I need to sort things at home," the pilot was almost begging now, unaware of all the eyes in the bus were on her.


The manager was unrelenting.  Ayesha pleaded, again and again. But it's of no use. She hung up. And as she stepped out of the bus, she heard the dreaded notification on her phone. She was on the 6am flight.

This was not the dream job that the junior flight officer had signed up for three years ago.

Miles away, Pratik,* a captain with a major Indian airline, was having problem managing his finances. Yes, he was paid well. Very well, in fact. Captains take home about Rs 8 lakh a month. But it is of little use if the salary is delayed, or is not paid in full.

It had been months since he got a full salary at a time, and that was showing in his bank balance. "I'm now forced to dip into my savings, to pay the EMI on my home loan," he says. He and his family live in Mumbai's Powai, in a posh colony where flats sell for Rs 5 crore upwards. He declined to say how much the EMI was, but says it runs into lakhs.

Isolated events? No. Ironical? Yes.

A typical pilot in India starts her or his career, sometimes by the age of 21, with a salary of over Rs 1 lakh a month. A captain takes home as much as Rs 10 lakh monthly. There is seemingly no dearth of jobs, thanks to the domestic aviation industry that is among the fastest growing in the world. The country needs 17,000 pilots over the next decade, says consultancy firm CAPA.

It helps that Indian airlines, led by IndiGo, are adding aircraft at a furious rate. IndiGo alone will add about 60 aircraft in this financial year. The government estimates that the country will add over 1,000 aircraft in the next eight years.

But here is the catch. Pilots in two full-service carriers  - Air India and Jet Airways - have gone months without being paid. Many haven't got their allowances for six months. And in most of the low-cost airlines, pilots are a tired lot, flying incessantly and many of them fill up their annual limits within 10 months.

Pilots in Jet and Air India have threatened to go on protests if their dues are not met immediately. And at IndiGo, the 'mismatch' between pilots' availability and requirement came to fore after February 7, when hailstorms initially led to diversion of flights, and later cancellations of scores of flights. Facing a pilot shortage, the airline finally announced that it has curtailed its schedule by 30 flights a day, till the end of March.

"There was a slight mismatch," Chief Operating Officer Wolfgang Prock-Schauer told Moneycontrol in an interview last week. He added that the airline has put in a process to upgrade its senior flight officers to captains, and will also recruit expat pilots, to bridge the gap.

But how did the mismatch happen?

"The airlines haven't erred in their ambition to grow. The economic development in the country, and the big programs like Make in India and Smart City, can't happen without air connectivity," says Rituparna Chakraborty, Executive Vice President, TeamLease Services, a leading recruitment company.

"Logically thinking, while giving out big aircraft orders and clearing business plans, they should figure out their manpower needs," she adds.

But looks like the airlines hadn't. They erred.

Optimising resources 

Moneycontrol spoke to pilots, industry experts and former executives from the industry to understand what has gone wrong, when it comes to the airlines and their pilots.  What emerged was a cycle, that has turned vicious.

Constrained by trying industry circumstances like high crude rates, fluctuating currency and intense competition that has kept fares low, airlines are desperate for ways to cut costs. It doesn't help that most of them are in a delicate condition.

Jet Airways, which owes banks almost Rs 8,000 crore and has defaulted on interest payments, may have finally found a resolution deal. But it is still not out of the turbulent air pocket.

IndiGo, earlier this financial year, reported its first-ever quarterly loss since it listed on Bombay Stock Exchange in 2015. SpiceJet too, continues to be challenged. And as for Air India, it survives on government largess.

To cut costs, some airlines delayed salaries. Others tried to maximise resources through a tool called crew optimiser.

"Two airlines in India use this software, for crew rostering. It’s good for the company - better crew utilisation and lower overall costs," said a senior executive from the industry, who didn't want to be identified. In other words, companies could cut down on recruitment too.

At the same time, crew optimiser "has resulted in a lot of ad hoc flying,  leading to a lot of upset pilots.  It takes a toll on the crew flying pattern," he added.

Airlines who don't use the software tried different ideas. One low-cost airline planned to do away with a permanent base for its pilots.

A permanent base is important because it allows a pilot to get adequate rest, and maintain a degree of work-life balance. For example, if Delhi is the permanent base, then the pilot will be given rest every few days with his family and will be made to fly from there.

But the airline, to save costs, wanted to make its co-pilots fly from any base and rest him in any city -  and not the home base - as per its convenience. This would have endangered the pilot's work-life balance.

The plan was later taken back after Yeshwant Shenoy, a lawyer and aviation safety activist threatened legal action against the airline and the DGCA, the industry regulator.

Fighting fatigue

World over, crew scheduling is done according to the flight duty time limitation (FDTL) guidelines set down by the respective regulatory authority,  which in India is the DGCA.

"The FDTL lays down the daily, monthly, quarterly and yearly limits of flying time. It is set down to prevent fatigue in pilots," says Shakti Lumba, aviation professional and former Executive Director Airline Operations (Alliance Air) and Vice President Ops (IndiGo).

”But in order to maximise resources and cut down on costs airlines tend to fly pilots to regulatory limits

"For a healthy work-life balance, flying 70 hours a month is the ideal. Today this number has increased to about 80-100 hours on an average across most airlines," said the industry executive quoted earlier in the story.

While the airlines benefit as their requirement for additional pilots reduces, most of the pilots fall in line as any flying beyond the limit gets them over-time allowance. "This brings in the greed factor," says the executive.

But greed can't keep fatigue at bay.

Lumba explains: "There is transit fatigue, which takes place when you do a duty. To reduce it,the pilot is given prescribed rest after every flight duty period and additional 24 hrs every seven days. All fatigue cannot get eliminated and accumulates."

Consider a pilot's typical day.

If she or he lives in one of the metros, getting to the airport could take up to two hours and the duty hours start only once the pilot reports. In many of the developed nations, the transportation time is also taken into account. But not in India.

The pilot flies to three to five sectors a day, totaling about eight hours of flying time on an average, and a flight duty time of about 11-12 hours a day. Add to this, staying in hotels and dealing with weather (especially in the monsoon/fog season); these factors lead to mental and physical fatigue.

"When you are young, this is fine. As time passes and repetition sets in, this causes chronic mental and physical fatigue, which any pilot starts to feel it after about seven to eight years of flying," says a senior pilot who declined to be identified.

While Lumba recalls days when pilots would get two weeks ‘off’ after every 11 weeks ‘on’. This countered cumulative fatigue and ensure no pilot exceeded the 1000 hrs in 12 month limit. "But now on an average they only get 22 days off in 12 months to increase pilot productivity and has resulted in  cumulative fatigue built up and pilots timing out in 10 months," he says.

Lifestyle trap

Learning to fly is an expensive affair, and can cost up to Rs 1 crore.

Many of the pilots take huge loans, and thus need the job, despite all its pressures. "Most of the pilots are effectively high school pass. They don't have any other skill apart from flying," says Shenoy.

Shenoy recalls the days immediately after Kingfisher Airlines collapsed and many pilots were forced to take up jobs in call centres.

Job security is important. And expenses keep piling. While earlier airlines would train new recruits for free, now the fresh entrants are sometimes asked to pay as much as Rs 30 lakh to get trained on job.

There are bonds too, sometimes as high as Rs 1 crore, stipulating that the pilot serve anywhere between five to 10 years. If a pilot wants to quit even a day earlier, he or she has to pay Rs 1 crore.

And then there is what the experts call, "the lifestyle trap."

"Many of the pilots start earning up to Rs 5 lakh a month by the time they turn 30. They get used to a certain lifestyle - expensive cars, big homes," says Shenoy.

In all, pilots are not just in a position to dictate terms when  - like in the case of Ayesha - they are asked to take up extra work.

The effects can be seen in several ways. Shenoy points at the increasing number of pilots who have been declared temporary medically unfit, and permanently medically unit (TMU and PMU in industry jargon). "You also hear a rising number of divorces among pilots," adds Shenoy.

Shortage of captains

The industry norm is to have seven captains and seven co-pilots for each aircraft. "As it is not possible for all the pilots to be available all the time, the practice was to recruit more to ensure a bench strength of ‘available to fly’ pilots due an average availability of only 260/270 days out of 365 days” says Lumba.

But not anymore.

The industry is especially feeling the pinch when it comes to availability of captains.

IndiGo's Prock-Schauer said that the airline's pilot-to-aircraft ratio is 6.65, which will improve in the coming months as the carrier trains more of its co-pilots, or senior first officers, to become captains.

The up gradation, say industry experts, is not easy.  While the limit for minimum hours of flying has been lowered to get the promotion, the transition involves several rounds of training. "It can take at least three months, and as many as six months for a co-pilot to become a captain," says an industry executive.

IndiGo hopes to plug the gap by recruiting expat pilots. It already has 40 of them, and plans to recruit at least 100 more in the coming months. But then, getting an expat pilot is a long drawn process that can take up to five months as it involves getting a security clearance from the DGCA.

"And all these months, you will have to pay him too. Many also insist that they need to go back to their home country once in three months," said an industry executive.

That is not good news for an industry that is looking to cut costs, and improve its margins.

Collective effort

With shortage of such a critical resource becoming a major concern, industry experts hope that industry regulator takes note.

For instance, "DGCA licensing is very time consuming and flight training in India takes about 1.5-2 years whereas one can complete the entire training in the US in six months," says an industry executive.

But till then, the pilots are forced to get used to the extra hours in the air.

*Names have been changed to protect identities
Prince Mathews Thomas heads the corporate bureau of Moneycontrol. He has been covering the business world for 16 years, having worked in The Hindu Business Line, Forbes India, Dow Jones Newswires, The Economic Times, Business Standard and The Week. A Chevening scholar, Prince has also authored The Consolidators, a book on second generation entrepreneurs.
first published: Feb 19, 2019 12:09 pm

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