Support flying clubs to ensure supply of trained pilots

Updated: Jun 6 2006, 05:30am hrs
The government has been talking about a civil aviation policy since the late 1990s. A draft policy was posted on the government website in 2001, to which the Confederation of Indian Industry had given a lot of feedback. In fact, at one meeting with the industry four years ago, the civil aviation minister had actually said that the policy would be out in a week. But, the policy is yet to see the light of the day.

There are two crucial aspects neglected areas actuallywhich the government needs to seriously address in the policy: flying clubs and infrastructure, including regulatory aspects and airport modernisation. Lets take these two issues one at a time.

In India, there are 23-26 flying clubs at present. Unfortunately, except for a couple of them, most are more or less defunct. Even the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Udaan Academy, which was set up in partnership with state-owned airlines, has a flying rate far less than required.

At a time, when Indian airline companies have announced plans to purchase as many as 400 aircraft in the next couple of years, the country does not have enough crew to fly them. The rule of thumb is every aircraft needs a crew strength of 4.5, or nine pilots. So, with 400 aircraft, we need at least 3,600 pilots. The government must support the flying clubs to ensure the supply of trained pilots. Otherwise, airline companies will have little choice but pay through their nose to get expat pilots.

Again, to expedite the availability of commercial pilots, the government relaxed the requirement of number of flying hours to 200 from 250 hours earlier. While this is fine, it definitely raises some questions about the adequacy of training. At 250 hours, we were very much close to the international norms on number of flying hours required for getting a licence.

Abroad, a person can obtain a commercial pilot licence in just about five months. In India, it takes almost two years.

The second important aspect is infrastructure and its upkeep. The Directorate-General of Civil Aviation at present is incapableboth in terms of the number of people it has and the quality of peopleof adequately supervising the growing fleet of aircraft. A radical restructuring of DGCA and its role is required. For instance, accident investigation today is carried out by DGCA. But, the regulator might also be a culprit. Moreover, it takes far too long a time, first to order an inquiry and then, to submit its report. Abroad, such accidents are probed and report made public within a couple of days.

Sadly, the government has hardly moved ahead. Several committees were constituted in the past and the government is in receipt of their in-depth reports. The Air Marshal JK Seth committee recommended a complete overhaul of DGCA and had also called for a review of the staffing norms, aircraft Act and rules dating back to 1934 and 1937, respectively, and the licensing system.

Also, the government has to make up its mind about the number of international airports required in the country. Today, even a Kolhapur and a Baramati wants to be an international airport. It needs to be clearly specified, what is an international airport, where can it come up and can it support multi-modal transport. Every international airport requires two runways. Mumbai has only one, the second is only for emergency purposes. In 1986, JRD Tata had told the government that Bombay required a second airport. He had estimated then that the existing airport would run out of capacity in 1995. He has been proven right. The global norm for aircraft movement is 40 movements an hour. In Mumbai, its just over half of this at 24 movements an hour.

The existing modernisation plan, to my mind, is just a salvage operation. Its not a solution. Mumbai clearly requires an airport in the mainland, where space is not a constraint.

The proposed cess of Rs 500 per passenger may be a good idea only if the money is used for the specific purpose.

The writer is chairman, Blue Dart Express Ltd