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SpiceJet's pilots say they are 'caught between a rock and a hard place'

SpiceJet is facing a slew of issues that has seen its operations, pilots and crew members come under pressure. The end to the turbulence in the low-cost airline is nowhere in sight.

September 22, 2022 / 08:55 PM IST
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Budget carrier SpiceJet has been making headlines for the wrong reasons for the last five months. In April, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) barred 90 of its pilots from flying the airline’s Boeing 737 MAX planes, when the airline was involved in a slew of accidents that prompted the DGCA to restrict the airline to operating only half its summer schedule.

The airline also suffered a data breach in June, and an agitation by its pilots, cabin crew, and technical engineers. The airline however, has been able to keep the agitation a low profile one.

In the last week itself, the airline said it was sending 80 pilots on Leave Without Pay (LWP) and the DGCA extended its cap on the airline's schedule till October 29.

In the midst of all the ongoing turbulence in SpiceJet, its employees have continued to suffer and are seeing no quick end to their troubles.

"Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, things have only gone from bad to worse. Everyone is struggling to make ends meet at SpiceJet, but simultaneously have no other option as well," a pilot with five years of experience based out of Delhi, told Moneycontrol.

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He added SpiceJet's pilots were finding it difficult to find new jobs due to the limited requirement for Boeing pilots, as SpiceJet and Akasa Air are the only two airlines that operate Boeing aircraft in India.

New job woes

"Some pilots have attended interviews with other airlines. However, their in-hand salary for the first six to nine months will be even lower than that at SpiceJet if you take away the training costs," the pilot said.

Furthermore, he added that training to convert to an Airbus pilot would take two to three months, which would mean, overall, a pilot switching jobs will be making substantially less money for nearly a year.

The flight control systems of Boeing and Airbus planes are quite different due to which the skill sets needed to fly these planes are not comparable.

Another former pilot from SpiceJet, who recently joined a foreign carrier, said that despite him being not actively employed with the airline, SpiceJet made him serve a three-month notice period and gave him his relieving letter nearly five months from the day he resigned.

"I was not a part of the active flying roster at SpiceJet in March when I had resigned. But the airline still made me serve a three-month-long notice period, and my full and final settlement and relieving letter came only in August," the pilot said.

He added that even after getting his relieving letter there were some discrepancies in this final payout. But he moved on, since he did not want to give up the opportunity to join the new organisation.

SpiceJet’s employees have also claimed that there has been a delay in disbursal of salaries for the months of July and August.

Default in depositing dues

Employees have also claimed that SpiceJet is defaulting on depositing tax deducted at source (TDS) with authorities and allegedly not depositing provident fund (PF) in employee accounts.

Furthermore, SpiceJet's employees are yet to receive their Form 16 for fiscal 2021-22 due to which they are facing issues in filing tax returns. It is also reportedly defaulting on some statutory payments.

Even on September 22, an internal email by SpiceJet's Senior Vice President of Flight Operations Gurucharan Arora said that the airline will soon credit a significant portion of all PF contributions of all employees.

Pilots galore

Industry watchers who have been following SpiceJet closely for the last few years said that despite operating a limited schedule SpiceJet has more than adequate number of pilots available for its fleet.

Even after sending 80 pilots on leave without pay earlier this week, SpiceJet said that it had enough pilots to meet the current requirements.

"SpiceJet operates a fleet of 50 aircraft for which it needs around 670 pilots. But the airline currently has around 1,100 on its books," an industry watcher said.

Last year, a former pilot of SpiceJet Vinodh Loganathan had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking him to fix the safety hazard caused by the coronavirus-hit SpiceJet.

A trained pilot with nine years of experience, Loganathan in the letter said that since the pandemic began in March 2020, SpiceJet has hardly paid the cabin crew and pilots.

This, according to him, has led to pilots and cabin crew becoming financially stressed and are not in a state of mind to operate aircraft.

No end to risks

"A financially stressed set of crew is a flight safety threat, and since they are not in the right state of mind, a crash can happen anytime. The world should not forget the Germanwings incident, which happened not so long ago. SpiceJet, in the current state, is a flying coffin and the public should be wary about flying SpiceJet," said Loganathan in his written letter.

The Indian aviation industry, which has faced a number of challenges in the last few years, seems to have come out of it all unscathed. However, despite most airlines and airport operators in India eyeing growth and announcing expansion plans, most of India's pilots, cabin crew, and engineering fraternity are still struggling in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most pilots, cabin crew, and ground handling staff in India are underpaid and overworked compared to their international compatriots.

India's biggest airlines have still not restored the salaries of their employees to pre-COVID-19 levels, citing rise in fuel costs and limited domestic passenger operations.

Despite the entry of airlines like Akasa Air and Jet Airways into the Indian aviation space, salaries and jobs of aviation personnel are not expected to rise for the next few years.

Yaruqhullah Khan