Kunal Gupta is in the second year of a four-year mechanical engineering degree course. But while many of his classmates will follow the now normal route of getting an MBA and joining one of the multinationals setting up offices in India, he dreams of landing an Airbus A380 or Boeing 787 at Mumbai's new airport.
"I was just following the trend in India by signing up for an engineering degree," says the 19-year-old, whose father is a qualified pilot. "But I've been in love with aviation from the time I first set my eyes on an aircraft, and I am determined to act on it by becoming a pilot. Plus, this is probably the best time to get into the industry."
That is because an additional 4,800 pilots are likely to be needed in India by 2012, by which time Indian airlines are scheduled to take delivery of around 480 new aircraft. Yet, like much of the country's infrastructure, pilot training lags behind this growth in demand.
An Indian national can obtain a commercial pilot licence (CPL) at the age of 17, and the lure of a prestigious career and lucrative salary is drawing more young people to the profession. The Indian Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) says the average age of candidates who sat the CPL examinations in October last year was 19-20, and that is falling.
The problem is that, while India has 41 registered pilot schools and flying clubs, according to the DGCA they are not churning out enough Kunal Guptas to feed the country's burgeoning aviation industry. As a result, India is projected to have a shortfall of 3,000 pilots by 2010 and the squeeze is already being felt.
Salaries have been skyrocketing as Indian airlines compete for a limited pool of local talent. Competition and attrition rates became so bad that the government stepped in last year and decreed pilots had to give six months notice before resigning. There are also proposals to raise the retirement age beyond 62, and more efforts are being made to bring in foreign pilots.
The problem has reached the Indian air force, viewed as a viable source of talent by carriers. The number of fighter pilots leaving to join the airlines increased by such an extent that both the chief of air staff and defence minister have warned restrictions could be placed on their movement. "Commercial pilots can earn up to eight times more than what fighter pilots earn. It's easy to understand why they want to join us," says an Indian airline official.
None of these sources is enough to make up the shortfall. There is a need for more flying schools and more opportunities for Indian youngsters, say observers, while the training cost - around Rp200,000 ($4,500) over two years - has to come down. That could happen as more local and foreign players get into the pilot training market.
The American School of Aviation, a US-based pilot training institute, recently opened its eighth Indian recruitment centre in Hyderabad. And Belgium's Sabena Flight Academy, Air New Zealand Airline Training and Dubai-based Indian Aviation Academy exhibited at the recent Aero India show in Bangalore. All say there is growing interest in their programmes.
Boeing could set up a pilot school at Nagpur, where it is planning a maintenance, repair and overhaul facility with national carrier Air India. Airbus and CAE also plan to set up an aviation training centre in Bangalore (see P35), where ATR and low-cost carrier Air Deccan will also establish an academy. "An emerging market such as India has to prepare highly qualified pilots to keep pace with the exponential growth," says ATR chief executive Filippo Bagnato.
Local entrepreneurs are also setting up schools, some moving beyond the major metropolises to make it easier for potential recruits. Yash Air has schools in secondary cities like Indore, Shirpur and Ujjain and plans another in Ratlam. Chief executive Yash Raj Tongia plans to add 19 training aircraft to his fleet of 13 over the next two years, but faces a different problem. "We have 16 instructors, but there is a big shortage in all the training schools as experienced people leave to join airlines," he says. "Whatever you can pay them, the airlines can match that and people will leave."
Demand for training aircraft has also grown. Cessna recently sold 11 172 Skyhawks to the Aero Club of India, the main body for flying schools and clubs around the country. "As the demand for pilots and instructors is going up, our challenge is to train them up in the shortest possible time," says club president Satish Sharma.
In the interim, India is likely to be increasingly reliant on foreign pilots. But that causes some unhappiness among local pilots, whose salaries are almost half that of their foreign counterparts. "It is not good to have unhappy staff and high costs," says the airline official. "But the reality is that foreign pilots are an expensive necessity."
There are also worries that, if there is a consolidation in the Indian aviation industry, several hundred pilots could be made redundant. But the airline official says demand is so high these pilots are likely to find a job in no time. "We are talking about a shortfall of thousands, and a few hundred pilots can find jobs easily," he says.
That appears to indicate the future is bright for young Indians like Kunal. "More young people are keen on aviation, which is rivalling the engineering and information technology sectors in terms of salary and benefits," he says. "This is the new dream for many in my generation."