New Delhi: Hoping to make India a global flying training hub, the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) has announced setting up eight new academies across five airports — Belagavi and Kalaburagi in Karnataka, Jalgaon in Maharashtra, Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh, and Lilabari in Assam.
Under the Narendra Modi government’s Atmanirbhar Bharat plan, these Flying Training Organisations (FTOs) are being set up to prevent aspiring commercial pilots from having to receive training abroad.
Bids were awarded in May this year to aviation firms Asia-Pacific, Jetserve, Redbird, Samvardhane and Skynex.
“These are Public Private Partnership (PPP) projects where land is leased out to the winning FTOs at throwaway prices for 25 years. The entire year’s rent payable to AAI (Airports Authority of India) is around half the fee of just one cadet,” MoCA Joint Secretary Amber Dubey told ThePrint.
“The concept of airport royalty or revenue share to AAI has been abolished. There can’t be a bigger statement of intent by the government,” said Dubey.
The Modi government wants to ensure that these academies will be at par with top FTOs from across the world in terms of fleet, infrastructure and instructors.
“The exodus of cadets will be reversed under the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan at any cost,” Dubey said, adding that India will take three years to become a flying training hub.
But why do aspiring pilots from India go abroad in the first place?
Why pilots go overseas
According to a written reply by Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri in the monsoon Rajya Sabha session last year, India currently has 9,073 pilots employed by airlines. Another 9,488 will be required in five years.
India, though, issues commercial pilot licenses (CPL) only to 700-800 candidates annually, of which about 30 per cent of pilots have trained abroad, according to the reply in Rajya Sabha.
Their reasons for going abroad depend on time, money and an abundance of human resources.
As of August 2020, India had 32 FTOs approved by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), which trained around 500-550 pilots annually, as enumerated above.
But training in India can take up to three years to finish what international schools teach in 8-12 months. An absence of a streamlined regulatory process also hinders potential growth.
“In countries like the US and Canada, CPL exams are conducted on demand. The cooling-off period is just 24 hours. In India, it’s three months,” Harsh Vardhan Pratap Singh, managing director of training institute, Falcon Aviation, told ThePrint. The cooling-off period is the time mandated between attempts to clear the CPL exam.
Captain Jati Dhillon, chief executive of training school Insight Flyer, echoed Singh. He also noted the lack of a proper schedule, with even exams for pilots delayed. “Tata Consultancy Services conducts exams for the Indian Railways … why can’t they do the same for aviation?” he said.
Dubey blamed the delay in exams on Covid-19. “We are looking for policy options to allow online interviews instead of physical ones, given the situation,” he said.
But that is not all. Procuring a license is also a time consuming process. “The DGCA has put in place too many rules and regulations such that it can take up to three months to get a license in India,” Dhillon added.
He also argued that flying school aircraft get grounded very often and the directorate of airworthiness — under the DGCA, to measure an aircraft’s suitability to fly safely — takes an “undue” amount of time to clear it for take-off.
A shortage of engineers only makes this process longer. “There are just four certified engineers in the country for a Piper PA-34 Seneca (training aircraft),” he said.
RedBird Aviation currently has 10 aircraft based in Maharashtra’s Baramati while 10 more have been ordered and delivery is underway. Falcon Aviation has eight functional aircraft in Ayodhya (Uttar Pradesh) and Rewa (Madhya Pradesh), and five are under maintenance which will join the fleet by year-end.
The government-run Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Udaan Akademi (IGRUA) in UP’s Raebareli has 18 aircraft.
Human resources issue
India’s slow process also stems from a shortage of human resources. According to the DGCA Civil Aviation Requirements, a flying school needs a Chief Flying Instructor (CFI) and a deputy CFI to remain operational.
RedBird Aviation has four CFIs and two DCFIs; Falcon Aviation has just one DCFI and one flight instructor with authorisation privileges; and IGRUA has one CFI and two DCFIs.
“Human resources are freely available abroad. They have mastered the act of managing qualified manpower in engineers, CFIs, examiners,
etc,” Singh said.
But this, Dubey said, is an artificial shortage caused by previous policies. “Many qualified flight instructors who have thousands of flying hours were languishing as Assistant Flying Instructors and Flying Instructors. They can now apply and get DCFI/CFI ratings subject to clearing the requisite proficiency tests at DGCA,” he added.
Training cost in India
Flying schools cost a lot of money. But academies in the US, Canada and the Philippines — three popular destinations among aspiring Indian pilots — have programmes that cost less than what it would in some Indian schools.
Training at RedBird Aviation and IGRUA costs Rs 42 lakh and Rs 45 lakh, respectively. Falcon Aviation charges Rs 29.9 lakh, inclusive of accommodation and simulator training.
“We use legacy aircraft which helps bring the costs down. This is DGCA approved,” Singh said, adding that nearly 80 per cent of the training fleet abroad consists of legacy aircraft.
What the govt needs to do
The Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown has played a pivotal role in preventing Indians who aspire to be pilots from going abroad.
“A lot of training institutes abroad have shut down because of Covid. A lot of Indian students have lost their money after schools declared bankruptcy,” said Redbird Aviation president Karan Mann.
While many in the industry believe that the government should stay out of the eight new FTOs in India, Captain Kunjal Bhatt, CFI at IGRUA believes otherwise. “It really depends on the management and how it runs the show,” she told ThePrint.
Dubey said the quantity and quality of fleet, infrastructure and instructors must improve, as does the monitoring by and responsiveness of the government, AAI and DGCA. “We need 5-6 large chains of flying schools with 30-50 aircraft each than the dozens of small fragmented ones that are anyway not sustainable,” he said.