Monday, June 24, 2024

Pilot, cabin crew crunch at Air India hits hard

Air India Chief Executive Officer Campbell Wilson. File

Air India Chief Executive Officer Campbell Wilson. File
| Photo Credit: Reuters

A mismatch between fleet expansion and staff requirement has forced Air India to cancel as many as six weekly flights to the U.S., its most lucrative route. The airline has cancelled three flights each to Newark and San Francisco for three months, its CEO Campbell Wilson said on Monday.

The airline is facing a shortage of both pilots and cabin crew. The long-haul flights that are impacted are among the most lucrative for Air India: its five destinations in the U.S. account for more than 20% of revenue from its flight operations. Moreover, with the closure of Russian airspace to the U.S. carriers, Air India enjoys an edge over its American competitors due to its ability to transport passengers from the U.S. faster and more cheaply.

Also read: Air India to hire 900 pilots and 4,200 cabin crew in 2023

In order to overcome the near-term shortage, Air India will hire expat pilots for its Boeing 777 aircraft. They will be “within single digit percentage of the total pilot strength of Air India,” Mr. Wilson said at CAPA’s India Aviation Summit 2023 here.

As many as 100 pilots for Boeing 777 will join in three months and around 1,400 cabin crew are in training, he said.

The airline has routinely had to cancel its U.S. flights in the recent past due to the staff shortage. The deepening crisis comes at a time when many in the airline industry have warned that Air India’s announcement of acquiring 470 aircraft over the next 10 years has resulted in a “nightmarish” situation for those who plan duty charts of crew for flights, and it is estimated that the airline will need “7,000 to 8,000” pilots to cater to this expansion. The DGCA recently allowed Air India to use a common pool of pilots for Boeing 777 and 787 aircraft on a trial basis to overcome the paucity of pilots and optimise their utilisation.

Mr. Wilson has acknowledged earlier that the shortage was due to the airline’s crew induction not keeping pace with addition of leased Boeing 777 aircraft from Delta Airlines to grow its long-haul network.

The 470 new planes to be acquired include among the widebodies, 40 Airbus A350s, 20 Boeing 787s and 10 Boeing 777-9s, and the narrowbodies include 210 Airbus A320, 321 Neos and 190 Boeing 737 MAX single-aisle aircraft.

A senior pilot of the airline, seeking anonymity, said that the shortage could soon spill over to other aircraft types in Air India’s fleet, such as A321 Neos. “To grow the fleet, an airline has to plan pilot induction six months to a year in advance,” said the pilot, who also complained of mounting fatigue among crew members as they see increased duty hours as well as cancellation of leaves.

“The DGCA’s rules on flight duty timings [flight duty timing limitations] allow airlines to make us work up to 12 hours, followed by a rest period of 12 hours. Not only is the airline pushing us closer and closer to the upper limit, but the rules themselves are harsh and don’t leave any room for work-life balance such as attending my daughter’s birthday party,” said a pilot, who flies Air India’s Boeing 777 aircraft to the US.

Speaking at the same event about India’s pilot training capacity, Minister for Civil Aviation Jyotiraditya Scindia said as many as 15 Flying Training Organisations (FTOs) were expected to be set up by the end of this year, which would take the total number of FTOs to 50.

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