The giant's growing pangs

The last few weeks have been harrowing for Indian fliers. On the one hand, Jet Airways — gasping for life — has withdrawn from many domestic routes and cancelled as many flights as it liked. Adding fuel to fire, IndiGo, the market leader, started cancelling flights all of a sudden. Together, this led to chaos, frayed tempers and haywire schedules at many airports across India.

While Jet’s troubles are well known, IndiGo seems to have partly created its own problems and is bearing the brunt of it. The airline grew at breakneck pace and operates a fleet of 208 aircraft including 14 ATRs. Contrary to what was widely reported, the airline has no shortage of captains or first officers. It is operating with a total of 1,263 captains and 1,154 first officers. This works out to close to six captains per aircraft, a very comfortable number and higher than many rivals.

The so-called shortage is artificially created — thanks to a sharpening disconnect between flight operations and roster making and poor pilot management — leaving a pilot body that is growing increasingly unhappy and recalcitrant. What has led to the spate of cancellations is more about the unavailability of flying pilots.

Let me elaborate. For several years, IndiGo pilots flew for 11 weeks and then got two weeks off. This ensured that the pilots had a reasonable work-life balance and enough rest. As the airline grew and more captains than were available were needed, the airline started paying more for extra flying. While this worked well for all concerned for a while, it ultimately led to many pilots hitting their 1,000 hours in the first 10 months of the year itself, leaving two months where they are not permitted to fly.

It also led to cumulative pilot fatigue. Pilots may earn more but their work-life balance gets thrown out of gear. 

Moreover, the airline is operating with skewed numbers across many bases, which often results in pilots having to fly to a different base to operate, adding to the nights out of home.

The problems are compounded by a computerised and intransigent roster that fails to account for real-life situations. As one former employee of the airline points out, if the roster fails to accommodate pilots, the pilots refuse to cooperate with the roster. In February, with uncooperative weather in north India, some pilots chose to call in sick even when they were not. 

Overworked but highly paid pilots are unhappy due to other reasons too. They claim they have received no increment for over two years now, that expats are being treated better and that the airline places “inhuman” demands on them. A senior commander who called in sick one day was asked to report at 4 am the next morning for a flight. “As per their expectations, I should be fighting fit by midnight which is unreasonable”, he points out. 

Pilots also argue that they prefer a former pilot as their head, someone who understands their situation as he would have been in it himself. The current head who was brought in from AirAsia Berhard is not in their best books. “I was Jasoned” is a polite pilot speak for being poorly handled. They retaliate by refusing to cooperate. Parties and off-sites fail to compensate for all that. 

Another change introduced by the airline was separating operations from rostering and bringing it under airport operations control centre. As a result, the flight operation section flies its own kite and sets its own schedule without being fully aware of the pilot availability position. It expects the roster to comply.

The biggest change, perhaps, has been the exit of former top and senior level executives — several of whom were better versed with the Indian ethos and culture and had managed the airline from its inception almost. Four expats have replaced Aditya Ghosh and Sanjay Kumar. There have been other senior level exits that have led to creases in the smooth functioning of the leader. 

The entry of several foreigners at the top has led to some confusion over accountability and delineation of responsibilities. This showed up in the last two weeks in the poor public relations management of the present crisis with top-level executives pointing fingers at each other and nobody being held accountable. The expats are not yet fully integrated into the system and for some of them the Indian environment is still alien.

In conclusion, the Indian media’s reaction to IndiGo’s mini crisis — as with everything else — has been over the top. SouthWest Airlines and Ryanair a few months ago cancelled flights en masse with little ado. Heavens won’t fall with a smaller number of aircraft in the sky.

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