MUMBAI // India's aviation industry is bouncing back with a sharp rebound in air traffic, but industry experts worry new rules proposed by the government will slow the revival.
India's aviation regulator has drafted regulations to enhance aviation safety by placing new limits on pilots' flying hours to avoid fatigue.
The recommendations include reducing the number of landings for pilots flying at night from three to two and more rest for pilots flying on international routes. It also makes it mandatory for airlines to maintain electronic rosters detailing the duty hours of pilots. Critics fear the rules will lead to a severe shortage of pilots.
The new rules, to be implemented from June, come after an Air India plane crashed in Mangalore last May, killing 158 people. The new aircraft, operated by experienced pilots, overshot the runway, plunged down an embankment and burst into flames.
Investigations revealed the crash was a result of pilot error caused by exhaustion. One of the pilots was heard snoring on the recovered cockpit voice recorder.
The Directorate General of Civil Aviation, the regulatory agency, is also investigating a scandal that exposed seven pilots with commercial airlines had fake flying licences, obtained allegedly after bribing government officials. The affair led to questions being raised about safety in Indian skies.
"Safety continues to be a prime concern as India's aviation sector grows," says Harsh Vardhan, the chairman of Starair Consulting, an aviation consultancy firm based in New Delhi. "It cannot be ignored at any cost."
But safety issues aside, airlines complain the new guidelines could lead to a huge shortfall of pilots in a rapidly expanding industry already facing a manpower shortage.
The Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, an independent aviation research group in New Delhi, estimates airlines will need to hire about 20 per cent more pilots to maintain the same level of operations if the rules are implemented.
After a brief lull since the start of the economic crisis, India's aviation industry is back in expansion mode.
Soaring economic growth and rising incomes are encouraging more people to choose air over train travel. Last year India's airlines carried 52 million passengers on domestic routes, more than 20 per cent up on 2009.
Domestic passenger numbers are expected to rise to 180 million by 2020. Airbus estimates that with the current growth in passenger numbers, India would need 1,032 new aircraft by 2028.
Carriers aggressively cut capacity during the downturn, but are now gradually adding new flights.
IndiGo, India's largest budget airline, set a new aviation record in January after it ordered 180 aircraft from Airbus to be delivered between 2016 and 2025. The deal is worth US$15.6 billion (Dh57.29bn), said the airline, which is targeting India's burgeoning middle class.
SpiceJet, another low-cost carrier, has ordered 30 Boeing aircraft, which are expected to be delivered by 2014.
Currently 4,000 aircraft are operated in India by 300 pilots. This year, more than dozen new aircraft will be added to the growing fleet, but there are not enough trained pilots to man them, airlines say.
The issue reflects a major problem facing many other high-growth global sectors of the economy - a shortage of skilled workers.
"It's a common story: human resources is conveniently forgotten in India's growth equation," says Kapil Kaul, an executive with Asia Pacific Aviation. "Getting the right people, building a quality workforce, is a growing strategic problem among Indian businesses."
Mr Kaul estimates at the current rate of expansion, India's aviation sector will have a shortfall of 500,000 skilled workers - including pilots, engineers, air traffic controllers and ground handlers - over the next decade.
To offset this shortage, Asia Pacific Aviation has invested $125 million to develop an aero training facility in Bangalore. Expected to be ready next year, it will include flight simulators, a flying school and engineering workshops.