New Pilots

Air-traffic controller shortage threatens Indian airline boom

2016 08 12

NEW DELHI — India has just ploughed US$50 million (S$67 million) in a new 102m-air traffic control tower in New Delhi. Now comes the hard part: Finding qualified flight controllers to operate it.

Designed by HOK, the same firm that drafted Apple Inc’s research headquarters in California, the tower will be operational in about six months. Yet, it may struggle to handle more flights without enough controllers, according to aviation officials.

The nation’s busiest airport needs 600 of the technicians ideally for stable operations, but employs only 360, the officials say. The shortfall has meant existing ATCs (air traffic controllers) are overworked.

“It is a huge safety hazard,” said Mr Mohan Ranganathan, a former commercial pilot and an independent aviation safety consultant based in the southern Indian city of Chennai. “The air traffic controllers are being flogged in violation of fatigue rules.”

The dearth of talent is threatening to reach crisis proportions as a slew of budget carriers unveil plans to add hundreds of aircraft to cater to the travel boom fuelled by rising incomes and lower fares. Adding to the challenge is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious programmes to connect smaller towns and villages by air.

The situation came to a head when the United States Federal Aviation Administration downgraded India’s aviation safety rating in 2014, concluding the nation could not find enough officials to ensure the safe operation of flights. The US regulator said India’s oversight processes did not meet global standards, putting the country on par with Zimbabwe. The ranking was restored a year later after some corrective action to address shortcomings.

Even so, the air-traffic controller shortage will only intensify in the coming years as local carriers buy more planes. Boeing estimates India will need 1,850 aircraft valued at US$265 billion over the next two decades. At least 709 planes are already on order. Go Airlines India said it will buy 72 A320neos from Airbus. SpiceJet is in talks for 150 aircraft and IndiGo, the nation’s biggest carrier, has ordered 430 Airbus narrow-body jets on top of more than the 100 it already flies.

“There is a huge disconnect between what is required in terms of infrastructure, both physical and manpower, and what is being planned,” said Mr Kapil Kaul, South Asia CEO for Sydney-based Capa Centre for Aviation. “We are heading towards a serious infrastructure shortage but choose to ignore reality.”

A new aviation policy unveiled in June by Mr Modi is also fuelling carriers’ expansion plans. In the making for more than a decade, it aims to revive hundreds of unused Indian airports, and provide subsidy to airlines that fly to remote areas. More routes, more planes mean more controllers.

The problem is not just limited to India. By 2030, the world will need another 40,000 air traffic controllers to handle flights, according to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (Icao). Yet, there are so few training facilities in Asia — the fastest-growing travel market — that the region will have a deficit of more than 1,000 controllers each year, Icao said.

The Indian government is in the process of hiring as many as 600 air traffic controllers, who will be trained at three facilities across the country, but only about 60 will be deployed in New Delhi, according to airport officials.