March 15, 2024


Do the new airline rules restrict the sector’s growth?

Taking a flight has become a routine experience for millions of Indians every day. It has become easier to book flights and get on with the journey. This isn’t to say the Indian airline sector is perfect without any issues. We’ve seen frequently documented reports of delays, angry passengers, and airlines scrambling to save face.

But there’s something that doesn’t get a lot of attention. Indian pilots are tired. A pilot’s schedule is gruelling due to lengthy working hours and little rest. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) decided to do something about it. It revamped its Flight Duty Time Limitations (FDTL) regulations to give pilots more rest and ensure they’re in good shape to fly. However, airlines are worried about the new rules. They say it could affect their operations and limit their ability to cater to increasing demand.


A couple of years ago, as the country was recovering from the pandemic, the airline sector was in the early stages of its comeback. People wanted to travel again, and passenger numbers at airports steadily climbed. So much so that analysts estimated that India would need 1,000 additional pilots every year for the next five years to keep up. Some experts weren’t worried much about the quantity of pilots but the quality.

There are over 9,000 pilots employed by airlines in India. The government has been setting up more flying schools to train commercial pilots. There are only about 35 approved flying schools, which is not enough. Setting up a flying school after getting DGCA approvals isn’t easy and will take time.

The life of a pilot can seem glamorous from the outside since they constantly travel to interesting destinations. However, that’s not necessarily the reality. Yes, they get paid well, but that counts for nothing if the salary doesn’t come on time or in full for months.

Then there’s the schedule. Back in 2022, pilot unions of Air India complained of long working hours and a shortage of pilots. They spoke of flying over 70 hours a month, little to no downtime and weekly rests, and abuse by senior management to take up extra flights. These concerns continued in the years ahead.

Herein lies the problem, the airline sector needs to expand to cater to demand. So, airlines have been on a buying spree of new aircraft, but there aren’t enough pilots. Hence, they’ve been made to work additional hours with minimal rest resulting in fatigue.

The DGCA decided to act. In January, the FDTL regulations were revamped. It stipulated additional weekly rest for pilots from 36 hours to 48, revisions to night duty allocations where the midnight period will be 6 am instead of 5 am, and mandated airlines submit fatigue reports. The airlines are worried these rules will restrict the sector’s needed expansion. Are they right?

VIEW: Airlines shouldn’t gamble with safety

Anything concerning the airline sector should be viewed through the lens of the safety of everyone on board. We’ve seen what can happen when airlines or regulators take their eyes off the ball on passenger or aircraft safety. The Indian aviation sector needs to adopt these new rules laid down by the DGCA as soon as possible. Airlines are understandably worried about their bottom lines. They should understand that these rules will ultimately benefit them and attract more passengers.

Early last year, a 37-year-old Air India pilot died in the company’s Gurugram office from cardiac arrest. In August, an IndiGo pilot collapsed and died. In the aftermath, pilots spoke of their employers pushing them to the brink. India has been painfully lax in its pilot rules. In the US, regulators allow flights manned by two pilots to serve a maximum duty of 14 hours a day and 9-10 hours of late-night flights. India didn’t differentiate between the two. It allows pilots to be on duty for 13 hours within 24 hours.

India isn’t the first country to do something like this. Following the tragic accidents at TransAsia Airways Corp, Taiwan implemented stricter regulations. A couple of years ago, European regulators cited several fatigue hazards in the aviation business. Wearable electronics and biomathematical models are becoming more common. The Indian aviation sector is poised for years of growth ahead. Not implementing the DGCA’s rules would only backfire on airlines.

COUNTERVIEW: Could restrict the sector

It’s clear that the Indian airline sector is only going to keep growing in the years ahead. The result will be increased demand for more flight options to new destinations. That means airlines will need more planes and pilots. Putting the new rules aside for a moment, the bigger issue is the shortage of pilots. More pilots would mean increased rest time as flight schedules could be spread across more pilots.

If airlines are going to expand, the new rules might be a hindrance. The Federation of India Airlines (FIA), which represents companies like IndiGo, Air India, and Vistara, warned that the new rules will require a 25% increase in the number of pilots hired. The DGCA has given June 1 as the deadline. Hiring and training that many pilots before then won’t be possible. The FIA estimates that up to 20% of flights could be cancelled as a result.

The FIA is also concerned about how the rules will impact day-to-day operations. Take the night duty requirements, for example. Increasing it by an hour and limiting the number of landings could result in the underutilisation of pilots and require more to be on standby at night if there are delays. A better approach would be for airlines to implement their own Fatigue Risk Management Systems (FRMS), where they collect and analyse data on pilot fatigue as prescribed by the global watchdog, The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

Reference Links:

  • Life of an Indian pilot: Extra hours, high EMIs and a fat salary that’s often delayed – Moneycontrol
  • Pilots’ associations flag ‘punishing schedules’ issue to Air India management – ET Travel World
  • From defined working hours to additional rest: Here’s how DGCA’s revamped flight duty norms aim to attach ideal work scenarios for Indian pilots – Financial Express
  • India’s aviation watchdog reviewing fatigue data after pilot death – Reuters
  • Indian airlines shouldn’t gamble with stricter safety if they want more business – Economic Times
  • Flight duty time limitation and why Indian airlines are seeking more time to enforce the new norms – Moneycontrol

What is your opinion on this?

a) The new airline rules won’t restrict the Indian aviation sector.

b) The new airline rules will restrict the Indian aviation sector.


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