In October 2021, despite owning two struggling airline businesses, Tata Group decided to bite the bullet and purchase the beleaguered national carrier Air India. From the country's point of view, the group was taking a big headache off government as taxpayers' money being spent on a business that was proving to be a blackhole would be spared.
Understandably, Tatas have ever since been in a rush to fix things at the airline giant. There is an urgency to the whole effort in today's day and age of instant gratification, social media and constant information flow. No sooner than a flight is delayed or takes off, there are tweets, videos, WhatsApp and Facebook updates and so on that keep everyone on the ground updated with their experience. Toilets were dirty, the flight was late, there was a cockroach in the cabin, the air conditioning failed, food was inedible, the entertainment system did not work, and so on. It's been an endless barrage of complaints through 2022 that have accosted the Tata and Air India senior management especially since the aircraft inherited by the group were in far worse shape than expected.
In the last few months and certainly since he's taken hold of the airline's reins in the second half of 2022, the airline's new CEO Campbell Wilson and his small team of management have been trying to fix the loose nuts and bolts. There's been a renewed focus on fixing all the external problems: a massive rebranding exercise has been undertaken and a proportion of the fleet has been refitted with new carpets, cushions, seat covers and curtains. In some aircraft, inflight entertainment has been repaired at least for business and first class. A visible difference has been reported by passengers on some international sectors where the aircraft have been recently leased. Domestic on-time performance has improved if one goes by DGCA data. All the steps undertaken in the last 18 months or so have brought in a slew of positive reviews although anecdotally there are plenty of contrary reports in any week of the month. Complaints relating to the product and service on offer coming into the Tata and airline management's ears from all and sundry are yet to abate.
But as months have gone by, more serious matters have come to light. What has become a bigger concern is the safety aspect of the airline including its training practices.
In what many saw as validation of what they have been emphasising for a while, in late August, DGCA temporarily suspended Air India's Boeing and Airbus simulator training facilities in Mumbai and Hyderabad for certain lapses. Although the regulator did not provide any specific details about the nature of the discrepancies, according to sources, they have found lack of compliance pertaining to training and certification of pilots on the flight simulators. The simulators are used to familiarise pilots with the plane's operational procedures and to prepare them for emergency situations.
A few days ago, matters reached a head when the DGCA suspended the airline's head of safety after it conducted a deeper enquiry into the audit, checks and accident prevention practices. Gaps and lapses were found in reporting of incidents, which have a strictly laid down and rigid format. The airline was found to be lacking in the requisite technical manpower as well.
So, how did Air India, with its highly trained engineers and skilled staff, reach such a pass, a point where many in the sector and airline insiders argue that safety in Air India is being compromised.
Commanders and airline insiders say that what we are seeing today did not happen overnight and has been building up in the airline for a few years. Many allege that training requirements and standards for Air India pilots have been slipping and are not on par with most other airlines for quite a while now.
DGCA prescribes a syllabus for full flight simulator (FFS) training for a co-pilot who hopes to take command as normally it is simply a co-pilot flying a particular type moving from the right seat to the left seat. But when pilots are moving from one type of aircraft to another, the operator can also add a few Fixed Base Simulator (FBS) sessions to familiarise the trainees before commencing the more expensive FFS sessions. In Air India, at some point when the B777/787 co-pilots were trained as captains on the A320, AI decided to have two FBS sessions before the mandatory 8 FFS sessions. But many of the trainees found it difficult to cope up and a few failed to make the grade too.
Almost all instructors felt that the syllabus was inadequate and some of these instructors put it down in writing. Faced with this, in 2017, the then executive director, training, decided to increase the quantum of training to at least match that provided to the Airbus captains who went to the B787s and the FBS sessions were increased to 6. A few sets of trainees benefited from this.
But as has been the bane of the airline, too many practices are introduced or withdrawn based on the whim and fancy of the officer in charge or at the helm of affairs. Subsequently, when there was a change at the top, the FBS training was again reduced to two sessions. "There has always been a tendency in the airline to take the shortcut or do jugaad," argues an Air India management pilot. He says that while Air India at all times tries to ensure that it does what DGCA prescribes, there is always room for improving on what's prescribed. This is what takes a hit when pilots are in shortage.
Moreover, when the session requirements were reduced, a tacit understanding developed among the instructors that "there shouldn't be any failures". So from this point on, most of the co-pilots successfully completed their training whether they were confident or competent with the aircraft, or not.
"There is a very thin line in being able to fly, competent to fly and confident to fly," explains one senior commander. He argues that many co-pilots and even recent commanders are technically qualified and able to fly but many of them when placed in tricky situations may falter and take the wrong calls and cannot be called wholly "competent". "You can be called competent if you take the right call in almost 8 out of 10 tricky situations but would you call someone who is unsure or takes many wrong calls competent? I wouldn't," he explains. Confidence, he further argues, only comes with years of experience and hours of flying. A confident commander knows that he can tackle the situation no matter what it demands and is almost certain he can do so without compromising his passenger's safety, he adds.
In Air India, there have in the past been some serious incidents involving pilots who are not fully adept including one where the commander in charge failed to take correct action during a ground proximity warning and the co-pilot swung into action to avert a possible disaster. Senior commanders argue that safety violations by these not adequately trained pilots are not uncommon but most of them tend to be "hushed up". "This is where the graves are dug. Aviation is a creature of habit. Procedures, laid down norms and regulations followed to a tee and you're in a safe zone. Any creativity and experimentation is not a great idea," argues a former Air India CMD. He argues that getting from point A to point B on a daily basis, 24x7 smoothly requires being singularly uncreative and "not thinking out of the box". Doing things the way they are being done and internationally established guidelines that have stood the test of time just need to be blindly followed and repeated ad nauseum.
The airline in response to queries on specific incidents says that it did not "wish to comment on isolated incidents in the absence of complete and accurate context". It further maintained that pilot training was in accordance with all requirements and it may suffice to state that "there is no compromise, whatsoever, on safety".
One Size Doesn't Fit All
While basic norms and guidelines are laid down by DGCA, there is room for flexibility that lies with the airline and each airline develops its own internal guidelines, dos and don'ts. Safety is paramount for all but almost all players see slippages and laxity creeping in from time to time.
To cite an instance, airlines like IndiGo do not consider a non-type rated co-pilot for first command on the Airbus. More recently, when the airline took in B777 commanders from Jet Airways, they made them fly as co-pilots for 500 hours on the Airbus before upgrading them as commanders, regardless of how experienced they were. Sources claim that in one instance a former B777 commander who had 30,000 hours of flying and vast experience with Indian Airlines, Singapore Airlines and Jet, was made to fly as a co-pilot on the A320 by the airline before he was given command.
Similarly, even airlines like AirAsia have been stricter in their norms for commanders. The airline recruited some ex-Jet Airways B777 captains as direct entry captains on the A320 but they made them undergo an extensive simulator training syllabus with 36 hours of FBS training.
In Air India, however, things have been getting more relaxed with worrying implications. Earlier the minimum required was 2,750 hours as co-pilot on type (Airbus) to be considered for upgrade as captain. Now it has been reduced to 2250 hours total - required by DGCA - out of which 250 would have been acquired in the flying clubs.
Although the syllabus has not been changed, a change has been made in the process. Earlier the entire training in the simulator was conducted for a set of two pilots by a dedicated instructor, and the supervised line flying was also performed by the same dedicated trainer. "It ensured continuity and more important accountability, as each instructor would consider his/her trainee as their responsibility and try to do justice to the job," argues one senior commander. In fact, a circular was issued in September 2017 by the then-incumbent executive director of operations stating that only a dedicated instructor shall perform SLF.
Now this concept of a dedicated instructor has been done away with. As a result, no one assumes any responsibility or can be held clearly accountable. Many argue that instructors see the training they conduct as an additional income and nothing more. It may be more an aberration than a rule but a recent DGCA audit found that some trainers were logging in hours but were not imparting the actual training since they are paid on an hourly basis for training hours. The airline denied this in an email response: "We unequivocally dismiss this suggestion and reiterate that our trainers log in training hours only when training is conducted."
Sources also allege that the handover of a trainee lacks due diligence as the reports of their abilities are not very detailed. Even in other airlines, a trainee can end up being assigned to more than one instructor, but in more professionally managed airlines, even if a trainee is assigned to more than one instructor, the instructor will write detailed reports about the trainee’s performance which will give a good insight to the next instructor. In AI, instructors rarely write such detailed reports.
Further, the pairing of pilots in the cockpit is another factor. In many airlines, a low experienced or relatively recent co-pilot is placed in the cockpit with a highly experienced commander with two objectives: overall safety and allowing the co-pilot to learn from a very experienced hand while on the job. This too is not always the case in Air India.
In response to these questions, Air India says: "Flying is a serious profession, and as India's most experienced airline, Air India prides itself on having robust operational management and control systems with a track record in meeting the most rigorous safety standards. Air India's trainee pilots are released as co-pilots only after they have flown under supervision of qualified trainers for adequate duration and successfully completed training/check sessions on the simulator. They are authorised to perform take-offs and landings only if their performance is found satisfactory on all parameters."
After the Tatas took over, they have been on overdrive and expanding very rapidly, which has exacerbated the shortage of manpower to fly the aircraft. More recently, the airline also placed the biggest aircraft order in India's aviation history, deliveries of which will start soon.
After privatisation, 16 batches of senior trainee pilots have completed the ground training, and three or four additional batches are presently undergoing training. Each batch comprises a maximum of 25 trainees. "It's almost like there's a rush hour on. This is worrying since safety could get compromised when things are pushed or done in a hurry," argues an airline insider. He adds that someone needs to remind the senior brass of the hare and the tortoise fable.
In response to a detailed questionnaire by Fortune India, the airline says that all the training is conducted "strictly in accordance with Air India's Operations Training Manual, which is duly approved by DGCA". The process of selecting trainers is also part of the DGCA-approved training manual. It added Air India is also one of the world's first airlines to have successfully completed a 'risk-based' IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA), a global benchmark in aviation safety. The new risk-based model delivers an audit scope that is tailored for each airline, focusing on airline-specific safety risks, rather than applying a "one-size-fits-all approach".
It adds that it recruited over 1,000 pilots to the Air India pool in the last one year, which includes internal upgrades, intra-group transfers, experienced expat pilots, fresh CPL holders as also those from a background in the Indian Armed Forces and experienced type-rated pilots from other airlines. To ensure that the training meets global standards, Air India says it is investing heavily in developing a training academy, which will be one of the largest of its kind internationally, with state-of-the-art facilities for pilots, cabin crew, engineers, and ground staff. The initial investment toward this effort is nearly $200 million.
Further, the airline has invited a senior team from Boeing, which has been working with it for a year now, comprising highly experienced pilots from multiple countries and airlines, to assess and strengthen its operational processes, with particular focus on training and standards. "It is not just about ticking the boxes but actually understanding the intent and the spirit. This includes reinforcing SOPs, improving our tracking, monitoring, and reporting processes. We are changing the culture, introducing accountability and changing our understanding of what is acceptable now versus what might have been acceptable earlier," the airline says in an email response to Fortune India.
But airline insiders and many senior commanders maintain that in the present "rush hour", the cockpit seats are being filled with "whomever they can find". Senior commanders say that in many cases the airline is now moving co-pilots who have just done around 500 hours to the wide bodies: the B777 and the B787 whereas the experience and flying time required for a wide body and a narrow body differs substantially and ought to be enhanced. By March 2024, the airline is expecting many of its narrow bodies and does not have adequate pilots for it as of now, sources say.
Senior commanders feel that the top brass of operations, safety and training should have had the moral courage to tell the Tatas that expansion must be calibrated and at a speed that can be handled. They say that to increase the number of captains and co-pilots, the first requirement is to have enough skilled and competent trainers. "The situation is that many have been upgraded to trainers, irrespective of their knowledge, skills or aptitude. Now you have people who don't deserve to stand under the wing of an airplane teaching others to fly!" says one source. Moreover, the office bearers of the unions have a disproportionate influence in picking who makes the cut as a trainer and who doesn't. In typical old Air India and public sector style, such picks are often dictated by playing favourites than on merit.
Who Will Bell This Cat
Sources in MOCA, former Air India CMDs and some former and present airline staff feel that the Tatas should have rid the airline of the earlier top brass and director level management and replaced the old timers with a brand new management team as soon as it was feasible. It is felt that "old habits die hard" and by keeping the same management at the helm of affairs, the Tatas have committed a grave error as these individuals are unable to shake off their "existing molds and style of doing things".
The airline as a public sector entity always operated with defined camps within the airline, led by various individuals who often acted more in self interest than towards the good of the carrier. "The camps that Air India and Indian Airlines always suffered on account of remain intact and these camps work against each other to the detriment of the airline as a whole," says a former CMD, who remains familiar with the workings of the carrier and has his pulse on the organisation. He says that the Tatas have retained the old brass in the interest of stability but these individuals are in fact more "destabilising influences" than anything else.
As a result of this, what has happened is that the friction between different camps or groups of employees and in particular the commanders and crew and the management seems to have sharpened and the relationship has turned more adversarial instead of improving. Many insiders and those who have worked in the airline over the decades argue that things internally have got worse since privatisation at many levels while failing to show any remarkable improvement in the product, the bottom line or the environment as of now. Whether this is the proclamations of a cynical and sidelined minority or the overwhelming consensus only time will tell. Till then, almost nobody in the sector including rival CEOs envy Wilson or are keen to find themselves in his shoes.