AirAsia India looking to hire pilots for smaller planes

MUMBAI: AirAsia India is interviewing pilots of smaller planes such as turboprops after losing a chunk of its crew to rival airlines, as the carrier faces a dearth of pilots for its own Airbus A320 aircraft at the salary levels it is offering. The airline is yet to start operations. The move to hire pilots of other planes may delay its commencement and expansion plans as it will have to train them to fly its own airliners. “They are mostly interviewing Kingfisher Airlines’ pilots who used to fly 70-seater ATR (Avions de Transport Regionale) planes,” a pilot who has been called for such an interview told ET.

Liquor baron Vijay Mallya-controlled Kingfisher grounded operations in 2012 due to cash and debt problems. Over the past few months, the Indian unit of AirAsia has lost at least seven pilots, one of whom went to Air India Express and the rest to rival budget carrier IndiGo. ET spoke to three such pilots.

“We left primarily because there was a delay in AirAsia’s start of operations. Also what the airline was paying is a lot less from what we would get from an Indian budget carrier,” said one of the pilots. AirAsia globally has a salary policy of ‘Earn more as you fly more’ for pilots. This is unlike Indian carriers, most of which pay pilots for 70 hours worth of flying irrespective of whether they have actually flown those hours.

AirAsia started hiring crew last March. Since it wasn’t flying, the pilots found themselves with only basic salaries in their hands. “For some, it was below 2 lakh a month, the same pilot could have earned 5 lakh at an IndiGo,” said the pilot who spoke to ET. To be sure, AirAsia has tweaked its policies for India. The pilot said it has brought in a clause to pay pilots for 50 hours and has increased its basic salary. But still the pay scales are at least 20%-30% behind its rivals in India.

Meanwhile, IndiGo who posted a record net profit of 787 crore in the fiscal year hiked its pilot’s salaries by about 1 lakh a few months ago. Its rival Go Air, also profitable in FY13, followed suit, according to sources.

“A pilot at AirAsia would get at least 1,25,000 less than its counterpart at IndiGo even after it begins to fly,” said Shakti Lumba, an independent aviation consultant and a former pilot at IndiGo. Also, both IndiGo and Go Air have large-scale expansion plans, which means they will have enough demand for pilots in the coming months. IndiGo, which currently has 73 planes in its fleet, will add 9 more by March 2014.

Between October and December 2014 it will start getting deliveries from its mammoth 180 plane order that it placed in 2011. Go Air which has a fleet of 17 planes will get three more by July and plans to lease several more throughout the year to expand operations.

AirAsia which has tied up with Tata Sons for setting up an Indian carrier, got a No Objection Certificate for its operations in September 2013, but is yet to get a flying licence also known as an air operator’s permit from the country’s aviation regulator.

The airline had planned to start operations by end of 2013. If AirAsia hires ATR pilots it will take the airline a total of four months to train it for its Airbus A320 planes. “I can say that our compensation is very competitive with the market and we have the pilots we want. There is no issue on losing pilots. It’s a small number out of the larger ones we have,” said Mittu Chandilya, CEO of AirAsia India in response to a detailed email query.

He didn’t elaborate on salary structures of AirAsia or whether it was interviewing ATR pilots.