As an investment in profession, piloting beats all other professions as the return on investment is very high and much faster
Every time the sine curve of Indian Civil Aviation commences its journey upwards in the positive regime, Indian youth head in large numbers towards flying schools in India or abroad to obtain the coveted Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL). In this age of aspirations that have multiplied million fold, the number of youngsters wanting to be a pilot, is astronomical. Vast reach of communications has helped spread the attractiveness of piloting as a profession without anyone really marketing it. As always in life, finance becomes a big stumbling block. Today, it costs upwards of 35 lakh to obtain a CPL. In fact some of the reputed flying schools even charge much more. The course fee at Government-owned Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Uran Akademi (IGRUA) is 42 lakh excluding boarding and lodging costs. Training abroad as an alternative may appear cheaper, but when the entire hidden costs surface, it proves to be an expensive proposition.
RETURN ON INVESTMENT
As an investment in profession, piloting beats all other professions as the return on investment is very high and much faster. Easy entry conditions provide the icing on the cake. You need to be at least 18 years old post training, with a pass score sheet of XII standard with mathematics and physics included as subjects. An investment below 40 lakh spread over two years, catapults you to a position of employability that will recoup the investment in a very short time. No other profession can match such performance. What is even more attractive is that this profession does not demand brilliance to get a license. All it requires is an average level of learning ability and a bit of hard work to cross the first hurdle of clearing the written exams conducted every quarter by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), India’s regulatory authority. The second hurdle of completing flying training of 200 hours is a pleasurable pursuit if one has the basic mind body coordination. If one is not blessed with this attribute even at average levels, it can then be a challenge. This becomes apparent quite early on in which case, a sensible solution would be to opt out of this career.
Piloting is now gaining more currency as, of the erstwhile two most popular professions of Engineering and Medical, the former has lost its clout and Medical education keeps getting more expensive each day. In addition, piloting is the career of choice for a mid-career shift. It has very easy entry conditions as its large span of age at entry acts as a great enabler. Working engineers/doctors dissatisfied with their jobs/employer/career, work for some years to build a corpus and then use it to invest in flying training.
Earlier, the high cost factor of flying training restricted it to those who could afford it. No longer is it so. The aspiring middle class has now joined the queue. Selling their property or taking bank loans to fund their dreams, there is no shortage of youngsters struggling to enter this elite club.
While the investment in obtaining a CPL has high returns like in all equity or mutual fund brochures, the small print must be read carefully. The expanding civil aviation market in India is cyclic and phases of expansion are generally punctuated by failure of airlines, buyouts, mergers and acquisitions as every expansion follows a consolidation phase. Period 2000-2020 is an illustrator to understand the risks involved. The optimistic moods in early years of the first decade of this century, witnessed a boom with very high demand for pilots. Both Captains and Co-Pilots were in short supply. The airlines had to hire expatriate pilots to fill the void. Co-Pilot seats were filled in by anyone with a license recognised by the DGCA. Quality became the victim. A few incidents/accidents later, the regulator became stricter and the airlines realised that dubious quality intake into the cockpit, did immense harm to their business. This resulted in the drying up of slots for CPL holders. The economic slowdown post 2008, added more woes to the consolidation phase of the Indian civil aviation industry. Awaiting entry into airline cockpit, the queue of CPL holders kept getting longer. Meanwhile, to beat the quality nightmare, the airlines switched to their own Airline Cadet Programmes where they could oversee the complete training process and ensure quality. This Programme included Type Rating and cost close to one crore. With the collapse of Kingfisher Airlines, Jet Airways and with the fate of Air India uncertain, opportunities for CPL holders are shrinking.
AIRLINE CADET PROGRAMME
The writing on the wall becomes visible to all generally after a time lag and always coincides with the phrase “too late”. Scores of pilot aspirants are busy chasing their dreams and their numbers are continuously on the rise. Number of CPLs issued each year by DGCA is on the rise, whereas induction by airlines is reducing. As per reliable sources, IndiGo and SpiceJet have totally switched to induction through their Cadet Programmes. Air India in any case, has stopped recruiting till its fate is decided. That leaves only Vistara and GoAir. This produces a phenomenal mismatch when one views the long line of unemployed CPL holders. Most of these belong to the aspiring middle class which lagged in the chase of the business cycle of the Indian civil aviation industry. Their savings are sunk and they have only CPL in hand and not a job.
How do we mitigate the situation and help the affected CPL holders? Are any avenues available that can accommodate this large group of pilots who have flown for two years and have amassed considerable aviation knowledge? They have breathed and lived aviation and have imbibed more than the basic fundamentals of this industry. Unfortunately, even the General Aviation segment has not shown any growth despite the UDAAN scheme.
One is therefore, forced to look for solutions outside the cockpit. Solutions suggested here must be viewed as temporary wherein these skill-sets and knowledge gained are utilised for a fixed tenure and as prospects of employment in airlines improves, CPL holders will migrate back to piloting.
The expanding civil aviation market in India is cyclic and phases of expansion are generally punctuated by failure of airlines
Let us first consider Air Traffic Control (ATC). A successful model is in existence at IGRUA whose ATC is manned by CPL holders awaiting employment by airlines. IGRUA selects willing CPL holders and then with the help of ex AAI/Military ATCOs, trains them in the role of an Air Traffic Controller. Fully conversant with most procedures, a small dedicated module of training is imparted to them and they man the controller’s desk. The experience has been that when a pilot in the air is controlled by a pilot on the ground, there is a significant gain in flight safety as both are on the same page. Their situational awareness is very high. Their response in emergencies is quicker and realistic. As soon as vacancies arise in airlines, these controllers will be the first to be inducted and are replaced by fresh CPL holders. Both individuals and the training organisation stand to gain in the process. Now the same model has been replicated by the National Flying Training Institute (NFTI) at Gondia airfield. In fact, all flying training organisations operating out of uncontrolled airports, must adopt this system as it enhances flight safety.
Even if all the Flying Training Organisations (FTOs) and the airfields used by them adopt this method, the number of CPL holders who will be gainfully employed in the waiting period prior to hitting a jackpot with the airlines, will be miniscule as the queue of CPL holders contains thousands. A bigger solution is needed.
The cadre of Air Traffic Controllers with AAI has B. Tech/BE as the essential qualification. Suggestion to absorb unemployed CPL holders into the ATCO fold of AAI, was met with stiff resistance when it was attempted earlier in the second decade of this century by the undersigned when AAI was facing an acute shortage of ATCOs. The main plank of resistance was unequal entry qualification. Majority of CPL holders are generally only XII pass. As per AAI, this creates an imbalance in the cadre and impacts utilisation and promotions adversely. Validity of the objection forced abandoning of the proposal. What is now being suggested is creation of a mini, short tenure cadre of Air Traffic Controllers who would be selected from the CPL holders for a maximum tenure of five years. Today, AAI still faces a shortage of controllers and has opened many small airfields for UDAAN where the utilisation of ATCOs is low as flights are few. This cadre could be gainfully employed at such bases. Its ATC training organisation at Allahabad could be tasked to produce a mini training module of four weeks, for CPL holders and use the National Aviation University (NAU) umbrella to award diploma certification to them. Their practical training could be done at IGRUA ATC which is collocated with the NAU. The spare capacity of NAU would get utilised, CPL holders would acquire another skill and AAI would get ATCOs who do not become part of their permanent staff/cadre, but yet belong to its pool of ATCOs who can be employed to overcome shortage. As the employment situation in the airlines becomes better, these pilots can shift laterally into the cockpit. And the cycle continues.
Who will steer the above suggestion and implement it? Only the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) can execute it as all the stakeholders namely AAI, NAU and IGRUA are part of its organisational set up and the costs involved for execution are next to nothing.
The next suggestion again involves MoCA and NAU. There are innumerable job profiles that are needed by the aviation industry. Each industry segment spends precious time and resources in training specialists of other allied fields for their mental alignment to the business of civil aviation before induction. Here is a pool of manpower totally aware of the aviation world and its nuances. All that is needed is creation of a few short diploma courses for the CPL holders in areas the industry needs. Here NAU and the industry would have to work together and create a blueprint. These pilots would contribute handsomely to the industry needs. Obviously, these are short term solutions costing next to nothing to implement. As job prospects in airlines improve, CPL holders can shift to flying as piloting skills were obtained with heavy investment and should not be lost. As the patterns are cyclic, the wheel will turn again. This suggestion again has to be MoCA-driven otherwise it cannot fructify.
The Indian Civil Aviation industry moves in cyclic patterns and the policy makers are aware of these. The suggestions above if implemented, will produce a win-win situation for all the stakeholders and in addition, ensure that the aspiring middle class of India that has bet heavily in its favour and invested all its savings/future through training its offspring in piloting, do not lose out in both the short and the long run.