Thursday, December 01, 2022

What do Indian pilots really earn? Not enough for all the stress

Picture this: You have spent crores getting through flying school to fulfil your lifelong dream of becoming a pilot, undergone months of gruelling training in a high-stress environment and finally navigated machines that can give up on you anytime. Once you are out of the training period, the pandemic and its salary cuts crash on you. And then comes the most unexpected situation—while you are still in the cockpit, the Indian Oil employees are on standby and refuse to refuel your flight. 

“This was a daily occurrence,” says Ravinder, a 29-year-old First Officer, who prefers not be identified by his real name. “We always have to make a few calls to our bosses and simultaneously placate the passengers by telling them that the flight is delayed because of some technical glitch.”

The human resource crisis in Indian aviation bubbled up to the surface when the newly launched Akasa Air and Air India (after its Tata acquisition) announced recruitment drives. Queues outside recruitment venues, and mass sick leaves—so bad they reportedly wrecked flight schedules—raised a very obvious question: is everything okay?

“The last time we experienced something of this sort was during the recession in 2008 when the aviation industry was hit really bad,” Ravinder says. He adds that trainee pilots—the entry level position for commercial aviation—who would earn around Rs50,000 per month on an average, can now get paid as little as Rs15,000–a figure corroborated by another pilot who flies with a no-frills carrier. 

The highest promotion in rank that a pilot can reach is that of a Senior Captain. We spoke to the 41-year-old Captain Charan who also preferred to not be identified by his real name. He argues that the salary structures had become increasingly unfair for pilots in India, despite flights now operating at full capacities on all routes. 

“For a senior captain who would earn Rs6.5 lakh per month, the cuts have been so abysmal that we are down to Rs50,000 per month,” he says. “To an outsider, a captain earning Rs6.5 lakh seems like a massive figure. But it’s really not as we had spent Rs35-40 lakh just as fees in getting the aviation education in the first place.”

Charan is astonished to see how captains continue to fly for these air carriers that, he says, are clearly abusing them. 

‘For a captain who was earning Rs6.5 lakh a month, their standard of living was in tandem with that pay. Now, with an enormous cut down to just Rs50,00 a month, how do they still go on living in peace?’ 

It’s a question that baffles Charan, who is considering moving out of India for good. 

The cuts go beyond regular salaries. Pilots complain that they are no longer being compensated for flying odd hours.

“A pilot is supposed to be compensated if they are flying during the circadian low,” Ravinder says, referring to the time period between 2-6am that is considered to be a period of habitual sleep for the human body. “Since the start of the pandemic to this date, many low-budget carriers have stopped compensating their pilots for flying during these hours, even adding more routes around the circadian lows.”

Avinash, a 22-year-old trainee, echoes a similar sentiment. He says that if pilots are being treated this way, if the ground staff and other members of the cabin crew have not been paid in months, accidents are bound to happen. However, he is hopeful that things will be restored to pre-pandemic levels in the first half of 2023. Captain Charan though say this is wishful thinking. 

While the acquisition of Air India by the Tata group and the entry of Akasa Air has certainly given pilots hope, the Captain clarified that pilots themselves have to be blamed for aiding and abetting the rampant toxicity that runs in the Indian aviation industry. 

01/12/22 Arman Khan/Conde Nast Traveller

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